2019 NL Central Preview

February 21, 2019

Chicago Cubs – Brandon Morrow was the top arm in the Cubs bullpen last year, and was outstanding when he was healthy. However, the injury that shut him down last season resulted in surgery that will keep him out for the first month of the year, which means that last year’s trio of Pedro Strop, CJ Edwards and Steve Cishek will get the bulk of the chances while Morrow is recovering. Strop was the primary closer when Morrow wasn’t available last year, while Cishek was their most consistent reliever and saw a fair number of save chances himself. Edwards has always had a live arm, but has found himself in a perennial set-up role despite his high strikeout totals. Another arm to watch is free agent acquisition Brad Brach, who has some closing experience and is looking to rebound from a disappointing 2018 with Baltimore and Atlanta. Brandon Kintzler and Mike Montgomery are veteran relievers who will round out the Cubs bullpen to start. Joe Maddon has never been shy about playing matchups and the Cubs figure to be contenders again this year, so while Morrow is worth stashing until he is ready to come back, most of the Cubs relievers can be helpful in leagues that count holds.

Starting 2019 Hierarchy: *Strop | Cishek | Edwards.
* = closer-by-committee until Brandon Morrow returns
Holds candidates: Brach, Kintzler, Montgomery.

Cincinnati Reds – The Reds bring back closer Raisel Iglesias this season, and his main competition for the role will be first-year manager David Bell. Bell has said that he will use Iglesias in the most important spots in games, whenever they may be. Iglesias boasts solid numbers and job security, which make him a relatively valuable closer even though the Reds aren’t projected to win many games this year. Behind Iglesias the Reds will turn to Jared Hughes, who put together an excellent season in 2018 (1.91 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 78 IP), as the primary setup man. David Hernandez, Amir Garrett and Michael Lorenzen also return as holds candidates. The Reds added veteran lefty Zach Duke, which may free up Garrett to stretch out as a starter, but it is more likely that they use both lefties situationally, making them good candidates for holds.

Starting 2019 hierarchy: Iglesias | Hughes | Hernandez.
Holds candidates: Hughes, Hernandez, Garrett.

Milwaukee Brewers – The Brewers bring back the NL’s best reliever from last year in Josh Hader, and the only reason he isn’t a top tier closer is because he isn’t really a closer. The Brewers have a three-headed monster in their bullpen featuring Hader, Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel, all of whom spent time closing out games last year. Hader won the Trevor Hoffman award as the NL’s best relief pitcher, and finished 7th in the Cy Young vote; Jeffress was a solid option all the way up until the playoffs last year, where he posted an ugly 7.71 ERA over 5 games; and Knebel struggled with injuries and inconsistency early in 2018, and even was sent down to AAA, but returned to put up staggering numbers in September (0.00 ERA, 18.2 K/9). All three figure to be prominent parts of the Brewers’ bullpen, but with Craig Counsell preferring to use Hader in the highest-leverage spots, it will likely be Knebel or Jeffress getting the first crack at saves in Milwaukee.

2019 starting hierarchy: *Knebel | Hader | Jeffress.
* = closer-by-committee
Holds candidates: Hader, Jeffress, Jacob Barnes.

Pittsburgh Pirates – The Pirates enter the 2019 season with one of the more stable bullpens in baseball. Clint Hurdle has been known to stick with defined bullpen roles, and to start the year he has a pretty clear hierarchy to work with. Closer Felipe Vazquez saved 37 games last year, and will return to his spot at the back end of the Bucco bullpen. Keone Kela was perhaps the best pitcher for the Pirates last year, and will serve as the primary setup man, with Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez also getting late inning looks. The Pirates signed Francisco Liriano and Brandon Maurer to tryouts, and if they make the team they could add some bullpen depth, but a more interesting prospect is rule 5 draftee Nick Burdi. Burdi is coming off of Tommy John surgery, and the Pirates will have to hold on to him for at least 2 months or he goes on waivers. He has a lot of upside as a former top prospect, and with the Pirates in a bit of a rebuild, they may want to see what they have in the young righty.

Starting 2019 hierarchy: Vazquez | Kela | Crick.
Holds candidates: Kela, Crick, Rodriguez.

St. Louis Cardinals – The Cardinals have a potentially lethal one-two punch at the back end of their bullpen with free agent acquisition Andrew Miller joining flamethrower Jordan Hicks. If Andrew Miller can wind back the clock to his 2017 form, and if Jordan Hicks can perform as well as he did last year,  they could be one of the best lefty-righty tandems in the majors, which is good for the Cardinals because it gets pretty shaky after that. Last season’s closer Carlos Martinez was an option, but now looks like he will miss the start of the season. Luke Gregerson is still on the roster, but is coming off a woeful 2018. The same is true for Brett Cecil. Dakota Hudson shows flashes of brilliance, but his walk rate was a scary 5.9/9 last year. John Brebbia quietly put up solid numbers last season including 2 saves, but spent the bulk of the year pitching in low leverage spots. The lack of stability means that the Cardinals might be looking to add arms via free-agency, with part-time closer from last season Bud Norris being a possible target. All of this uncertainty, and the likely split of 9th inning duties between Miller and Hicks, make the Cardinals a risky proposition in the early going.

Starting 2019 hierarchy: *Hicks | Miller | Hudson.
* = closer-by-committee
Holds candidates: Hudson, Brebbia, Gregerson.