2018 NL Central Preview

February 28, 2018

Chicago Cubs – For the first time in several years, the Cubs go into the season without a top tier closer to lead the bullpen. Brandon Morrow was confirmed as the closer out of the gate by Theo Epstein, but he has a solid group behind him that could press for saves if he struggles early. Newly acquired Steve Cishek was a serviceable closer in 2016, and posted solid second half numbers with Tampa Bay last year, and will likely be the first fallback option if Morrow falters. CJ Edwards, 26, has elite stuff, but still walks too many hitters and Pedro Strop throws hard but has never taken to closing. Former Tigers closer Justin Wilson is also around, as is converted starter Mike Montgomery. Wilson is the most intriguing of these options as he could vulture some saves as the primary lefty in the bullpen, and will likely pick up situational holds in leagues that count them.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Morrow | Cishek | Edwards.
Holds candidates: Edwards, Cishek, Wilson, Strop.

Cincinnati Reds – One of the only stable positions on the Reds roster last year was their closer Raisel Iglesias. Iglesias posted 28 of the Reds 33 saves in 2017 and looks to be locked into the 9th inning role again. Behind him, the Reds bring back Wandy Peralta and Michael Lorenzen, who held the primary set up role for the Reds despite fairly mediocre numbers. In the offseason, the Reds looked to add some stability by bringing in David Hernandez and Jared Hughes. Hernandez has some closing experience, but is looking to bounce back from a few below average years. Hughes is throws a heavy sinker, which is a valuable skill in Great American Ballpark. Bryan Price was not afraid to run him out for multiple innings at a time last season, so keep an eye on the vulture save watch for opportunities to stream a few saves.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Iglesias | Lorenzen | Hughes.
Holds candidates: Lorenzen, Hughes, Hernandez, Peralta.

Milwaukee Brewers – The bullpen was one of the major strengths of the 2017 Brewers and it is likely to be a strength for them again. They found an excellent closer in Corey Knebel and he will start the 2018 season in that role again. Anthony Swarzak is gone, but his setup role will be split between Josh Hader and Jacob Barnes depending on matchups. Barnes finished 8th in the league in holds last year, and could approach those numbers again if he stays healthy. There was some speculation that top prospect Josh Hader would move into the rotation, but he is in the bullpen for now. Although he is a lefty, Counsell had no problem giving him full innings last year, and that will likely continue. Behind the top 3, former closer Jeremy Jeffress is back, and veteran lefty Boone Logan gives Craig Counsell another matchup arm for the late innings, although he is more of a holds candidate than a threat for saves.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Knebel | Barnes | Hader.
Holds candidates: Barnes, Hader, Logan, Jeffress.

Pittsburgh Pirates – One bright spot for in an otherwise forgettable season was the emergence of Felipe Rivero as a top tier closer. On a better team he would be one of the first closers off the board, but with the Pirates in the midst of a rebuild he may not see as many save chances as Kenley Jansen or Aroldis Chapman. Rivero is locked into the 9th inning for the Pirates, while George Kontos returns as the primary set-up man. After them, there isn’t much certainty. Kevin Siegrest was signed this past weekend, and will compete for the LOOGY role. Steven Brault is the other lefty that could end up in the bullpen, but he projects as a starter so the Pirates may keep him in long relief if he makes the opening day roster.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Rivero | Kontos | Siegrist.
Holds candidates: Kontos, Siegrist, Brault.

St. Louis Cardinals – The St. Louis Cardinals enter 2018 without a proven closer, and manager Mike Matheny has pressed the front office to bring in a reliable 9th inning arm. President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak declared Luke Gregerson the front runner, but that was before the Cardinals acquired Bud Norris, who thrived as a reliever last season with the Angels and has an outside shot to win the closer’s job out of spring training. Tyler Lyons could be in the mix as well, but as a lefty, he may be relegated to a specialist role. One intriguing option is Alex Reyes, who is coming off of Tommy John surgery, but looks to be ready in May. For now, look for the Cardinals to play the hot hand early in the season. We’ll give Gregerson the inside track in the committee for now.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: *Gregerson | Norris | Lyons.
* = closer-by-committee
Holds candidates: Norris, Lyons, Reyes.

2018 NL East Preview

February 28, 2018

Atlanta Braves – Incumbent righty Arodys Vizcaino is the best bet to start out as the Atlanta closer this year, but we’re very excited to see if AJ Minter can challenge for the job early on in the season, or maybe even during Spring Training. Minter, 24, is the best Atlanta relief prospect since Craig Kimbrel, and dominated hitters in his late-season call up last season (15 IP, 26 Ks(!), 2 BBs). We’ll keep a close eye on the young lefty over the course of the next month to see if he has a shot to win the job out of the gate, as some are already predicting. (You may recall that Kimbrel was named closer out of Spring Training for the Braves after just a cup of coffee the previous year, so this move wouldn’t be without precedent for Atlanta.) Jose Ramirez is the likely #3 here, while Dan Winkler is another arm that could contribute.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Vizcaino | Minter | Ramirez.
Holds candidates: Minter | Ramirez | Winkler.

Miami Marlins – Brad Ziegler starts off as the Marlins closer in 2018, despite Don Mattingly seemingly acknowledging that Kyle Barraclough is probably the best arm in the bullpen. Barraclough is the only one who could challenge Ziegler for the role in the early going, but we’re guessing that won’t happen unless the submariner has a dreadful start to the season. Drew Steckenrider and Nick Wittgren both averaged more than a strikeout per inning last year, and are your holds candidates behind Barraclough. Veteran Junichi Tazawa may also have a late-inning role, though we suspect his best days are behind him.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Ziegler | Barraclough | Steckenrider.
Holds candidates: Barraclough | Steckenrider | Wittgren.

New York Mets – The Mets have been hinting that they may employ a closer-by-committee approach, with new manager Mickey Callaway promising a more progressive usage of both his starters and relievers. So for now we’ll start them off with the dreaded asterisk, though our feeling is that Jeurys Familia is still likely to get the vast majority of save opportunities. AJ Ramos, acquired in the middle of last season, is the clear handcuff given his past experience, while offseason acquisition Anthony Swarzak will be the 7th inning man. Jerry Blevins, likely the only lefty in the Mets bullpen, should again be among the league leaders in appearances and is a good candidate for cheap holds.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: *Familia | Ramos | Swarzak.
* = closer-by-committee
Holds candidates: Ramos | Swarzak | Blevins.

Philadelphia Phillies – Like Mickey Callaway in New York, Philly’s new skipper, Gabe Kapler, has taken off the K-Swiss and suggested that he may employ his best reliever, Hector Neris, all over the place. For his part, Neris is on board with the decision (note: original story source is here, but is paywalled), so there’s a chance that the plan could stick, meaning Tommy Hunter or Pat Neshek could potentially get save chances. Luis Garcia and Adam Morgan round out the Phillies’ top five.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: *Neris | Hunter | Neshek.
* = closer-by-committee
Holds candidates: Hunter | Neshek | Garcia.

Washington Nationals – The NL East favorites have made camels a prominent part of their preseason prep, but go into 2018 with basically the same bullpen that they ended the season with last year, with three mid-2017 acquisitions leading the way. Sean Doolittle, who took over the closer role last year after being acquired from Oakland, will start out in that role for the Nats in 2018, while Ryan Madson handles the 8th inning. Brandon Kintzler could also spell Doolittle occasionally. These three look like the clear cut leaders of this bullpen, with veterans Shawn Kelley and Joaquin Benoit also being potential contributors in the late innings. Last season’s closer in the early going, Koda Glover, reported to Spring Training with a sore shoulder.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Doolittle | Madson | Kintzler.
Holds candidates: Madson | Kintzler | Kelley.

2018 AL East Preview

February 26, 2018

Baltimore Orioles — This situation got a bit more interesting over the offseason when Zach Britton underwent surgery to repair his right Achilles tendon in December. Britton recently threw for the first time since the surgery, while wearing a boot, and will start the season on the 60-day disabled list, with a return slated for late May or early June. For now, Brad Brach (3.18 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 18 saves) will handle the closing duties, with Darren O’Day, Mychal Givens and Miguel Castro in the mix for holds.

Starting 2018 hierarchy:  Brach | O’Day | Givens.
Holds candidates: O’Day, Givens, Castro.

Boston Red Sox — Following a rocky first season in Boston, Craig Kimbrel turned in perhaps the best year of his career in 2017, finishing with 35 saves, a 1.43 ERA, a 0.68 WHIP, 126 strikeouts and career-best marks in K/BB (9.00) and WAR (3.5). He’s absolutely locked in as the Red Sox closer and remains one of the best in the game entering a contract year. Behind him, it’s a little more unsettled. Joe Kelly looks to be the setup man, with a few health-related question marks following him in Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg. Expect Matt Barnes and Heath Hembree to be in the mix for holds, too.

Starting 2018 hierarchy:  Kimbrel | Kelly | Smith.
Holds candidates: Kelly, Smith, Barnes.

New York Yankees — The Yankees feature perhaps the best bullpen in the big leagues, but it’s not perfect. After opening last season with a suspension, Aroldis Chapman turned in his worst campaign, even briefly losing his job as closer. He finished with a respectable 3.22 ERA and 1.13 WHIP, but he’s capable of so much more. Dellin Betances, too, was inconsistent after two dominant months to start the season. If Chapman gets injured or falters, Betances is the likely No. 2. Behind him is former White Sox closer David Robertson, in his second tour with the Yankees after a midseason trade last year. Tommy Kahnle may compete for holds, too.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Chapman | Betances | Robertson.
Holds candidates: Betances, Robertson, Kahnle.

Tampa Bay Rays — The Rays’ bullpen may soon look different if the team continues to gut the roster. For now, Alex Colome will return as closer after a 47-save campaign in 2017. There has been trade interest in Colome, though, and he probably projects as a setup man if he’s dealt. If Colome stays, Dan Jennings and newly acquired Daniel Hudson will share setup duties, with Sergio Romo, Ryne Stanek, and Andrew Kittredge all holds candidates.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Colome | Hudson | Jennings.
Holds candidates: Jennings, Romo, Stanek.

Toronto Blue Jays — Roberto Osuna is still only 23 years old, but he’s emerged as one of the top five or ten closers in the game. He had a down year in 2017, though. His velocity dropped for his top three pitches, sending his ERA north of 3.00 (3.38) for the first time. To correct things, Osuna added more upper-body muscle and has been working on staying more upright in his delivery. Ryan Tepera, 30, will back Osuna up after he went 7-1 with a 3.59 ERA in 73 games last year. Other holds candidates include Aaron Loup and Danny Barnes, as well as Seung Hwan Oh, whom the Jays acquired just this morning.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Osuna | Tepera | Loup.
Holds candidates: Tepera, Loup, Barnes.

2018 AL Central Preview

February 26, 2018

Chicago White Sox – The White Sox have a few different options for closer to start the season.  Veteran closer Joakim Soria was signed this offseason and would be happy to accept the job.  Juan Minaya finished last year as the closer, including converting all six of his save chances in September.  Nate Jones was stellar in 2016, but missed most of last season with injuries.  Jones says that he will be ready for opening day, and should challenge for the role if healthy.  We think Soria gets the first shot at closing, but one long shot to keep an eye out for is Thyago Vieira, who can touch 102 with his fastball.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Soria | Minaya | Jones.
Holds candidates: Minaya, Jones, Luis Avilan.

Cleveland Indians – The Indians will bring back closer Cody Allen and ace reliever Andrew Miller in 2018.  However, they lost Brian Shaw, who was a workhorse out of the bullpen last year, and Joe Smith, who was a key contributor after he was acquired midseason.  The Indians re-signed Dan Otero and he could step into the seventh-inning role.  Lefty Tyler Olson should also see time in the later innings, after he posted a 0.00 ERA in 30 games last year for the Tribe.  

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Allen | Miller | Otero.
Holds candidates: Miller, Otero, Olson.

Detroit Tigers — Shane Greene finished last year as the closer and it’s his job to lose heading into spring training.  Behind Greene, the Tigers have a lot of question marks.  Alex Wilson should fill a role in the back end of the bullpen, but he is also fighting for a spot in the rotation this spring.   Lefty Daniel Stumpf joins Greene and Wilson as established members of the bullpen, but Joe Jimenez is more exciting from a fantasy perspective.  Jimenez has stellar numbers in Triple-A, and although he struggled in the majors last year, he is hoping his off-season work will pay off this year.  

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Greene | Wilson | Stumpf.
Holds candidates: Wilson, Stumpf.

Kansas City Royals – The Royals’ bullpen, which was a major strength during their World Series runs, will be a big question mark going into 2018.  Kelvin Herrera started 2017 as closer, but finished the year with the highest ERA of his career and was removed from the role late in the season.  Still, Herrera is probably the best bet to start 2018 as the closer after the Royals lost Mike Minor and Joakim Soria in the off-season — if Herrera doesn’t get traded.  Brandon Maurer will also be an option to close after recording 22 saves last year between the Padres and Royals.  Don’t let the save numbers fool you on Maurer, though; he finished last year with an ERA over 6.50 — it was over 8 in his 26 games with the Royals.  Wily Peralta will be a guy to keep an eye on as the Royals could try to convert him from a starter into a late-inning guy like they did with Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Herrera | Maurer | Peralta.
Holds candidates: Maurer, Peralta.

Minnesota Twins — The Twins have revamped their bullpen for 2018.  Fernando Rodney is the closer, while Addison Reed will fill an important role at the back end of the bullpen.  Trevor Hildenberger pitched well for the Twins last year, and he should split seventh-inning duties with newly acquired lefty Zach Duke.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Rodney | Reed | Hildenberger.
Holds candidates: Reed, Hildenberg, Zach Duke.

2018 AL West Preview

February 26, 2018

Houston Astros — Ken Giles had a postseason to forget, but won his arbitration hearing and is working hard this offseason, building up stamina to avoid a repeat performance. Backing him up will be change-up king Chris Devenski and a few sleeper options for saves: 29-year-old Hector Rondon, who struggled with the Cubs last year, but still put up 10.8 K/9; veteran submariner Joe Smith; and incumbent Will Harris, who continued to excel when healthy last season. We’ll start Harris at #3, but this team has a lot of high-quality late-inning options.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Giles | Devenski | Harris.
Holds candidates: Devenski, Harris, Smith.

Los Angeles Angels — Blake Parker ended 2017 as the top closing option in Anaheim, and we think Parker starts with the edge in what will probably be a continuing committee. Familiar friends Cam Bedrosian and Keynan Middleton are also in the mix, along with recent acquisition Jim Johnson. The Johnson trade gave the Angels $1.2 million of the international bonus pool money they used to sign Shohei Ohtani, raising the possibility that Johnson’s biggest contribution to the team is already behind him.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: *Parker | Bedrosian | Middleton.
* = closer-by-committee
Holds candidates: Bedrosian, Blake Wood, Jose Alvarez.

Oakland A’s — Blake Treinen should continue as the Oakland closer, and is working on improving his fastball command. The setup options are much the same as last season: some combination of Liam Hendriks, Santiago Casilla, and Chris Hatcher, plus better-than-you’d-think newcomers Yusmeiro Petit and Emilio Pagan.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Treinen | Hendriks | Petit.
Holds candidates: Hendriks, Petit, Ryan Buchter.

Seattle Mariners — 23-year-old Edwin Diaz is cultivating the mind of “an old guy on the mound,” and Seattle has a good mix of veterans and rookies to help keep baserunners off his lawn. New Mariner Juan Nicasio should own the eighth inning, with Nick Vincent and David Phelps also playing important roles.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Diaz | Nicasio | Phelps.
Holds candidates: Nicasio, Phelps, Marc Rzepczynski.

Texas Rangers — Lefthanded sinkerballer Alex Claudio claimed first chair in a volatile closer committee last August. With Matt Bush headed to the (six-man) rotation, and an MRI revealing “disconcerting issues” in free agent Seung-Hwan Oh’s arm, the Rangers are left to choose among Claudio, Jake Diekman, and Keone Kela. Beat writers are torn between Claudio and his league-leading “cojones” and Kela’s electric stuff and .135 BAA. Jeff Banister wants to break camp with a guy, and although Kela has an extensive injury history, we think he’s the best option, and worth stashing even if Claudio or Diekman gets the gig. We’ll let you know as soon as we hear something firm.

Starting 2018 hierarchy: Kela | Claudio | Diekman.
Holds candidates: Diekman, Jose Leclerc, Tony Barnette.