Try to predict the weather. Try to predict the stock market. Try to predict what your crazy Uncle Joe will say or do at Thanksgiving dinner. Try to predict bullpen performance.
It can’t be done. Not with any real consistency, anyway. Heck, it is plausible that the Phillies — the team coming off the second-highest relief ERA in history (6.92) — have one of the best bullpens in baseball this year, because that ‘pen is almost totally remade and because, well, last year is last year and this year is this year.
That’s your annual caveat to this annual list of the top 10 bullpens in baseball. The Phillies are not on this list. But they could be by the time 2021 is done. All things are possible in ‘pens. And this year feels especially capricious because bullpens are likely going to be asked to cover more innings than usual with the jump from 60 games back to 162.
So these are nothing more than educated guesses that, a month or two from now, I will hope to have scrubbed from the internet entirely. At least I can predict that much.
Sign the best reliever in baseball and you have the best bullpen in baseball. It’s science. Actually, the Sox had a pretty nice bullpen brewing even before they inked Hendriks. Marshall has a 2.45 ERA in 73 1/3 innings over the last two seasons, and Bummer, who had a 2.13 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in 2019, is back after a left biceps strain limited him to nine appearances last year. The White Sox had two eye-opening, mitt-pounding rookies step up last year in Heuer and Matt Foster, and it will be fun to see if Garrett Crochet, last year’s No. 11 overall Draft pick, can make an impact after getting his feet wet last season. We’ll see the club’s No. 2 prospect, Michael Kopech, out of the bullpen (at least initially), too. So this is a fun and good bullpen.
Hader and Williams were probably the best 1-2 punch in baseball last season. Even with walk trouble, Hader had a strong 0.95 WHIP and an NL-leading 13 saves, while Williams ran away with the National League Rookie of the Year Award thanks to his mind-bending, air-bending changeup — a pitch that almost literally rated as unhittable (.032 average against). There are questions beyond those guys — and even with those guys (Williams was slowly eased into the spring while recovering from a right shoulder injury, and Hader’s ERA has risen each of the last three seasons) — that limit the Brewers’ standing on this list. But power-armed youngsters Drew Rasmussen and Justin Topa, the lefty Suter and sidearmer Eric Yardley give manager Craig Counsell a lot of looks to work with over the course of the year. So Milwaukee should have a good bullpen.
The Yankees might have ranked at or near the top of this list at the start of Spring Training, but injuries have taken a toll. Zack Britton’s surgery to remove a bone chip from his left elbow might only prove to be a short-term concern, but because he is so instrumental in shortening games, it is indeed a concern here. Britton likely won’t be back until May, at the earliest, and Justin Wilson’s left shoulder tightness was another, less-serious spring scare. But the addition of O’Day, who had a 1.10 ERA and 0.80 WHIP in 16 1/3 innings with the Braves last year, does help bridge the gap to Chapman, and the Yankees have enough talent to field a quality bullpen.
In the shortened season, Díaz didn’t make it all the way back to the dominance he displayed with the Mariners in 2018. But he nevertheless took a gargantuan step forward from his ’19 travails, and his stuff still rates as elite. In May, who struck out 39.6% of opposing batters he faced last year, the Mets might have landed the second-best free-agent reliever on the market (behind Hendriks), and Loup is another solid add. The early absence of Seth Lugo, who is recovering from surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow, underlines the question marks elsewhere in the ‘pen, but the Mets should be relatively reliable in the late innings.
With a heavy dose of dreaded spring setbacks (José Castillo is out for the season, and Javy Guerra and Matt Strahm will miss the start of the year), the bullpen is the biggest question mark on a loaded San Diego squad. But when you look around the league, the Padres are still in a better position here than most. They have several legitimate closing options in Pagán (who, to be clear, is not officially identified as the closer, but we had to fill that spot above with somebody), Pomeranz (though he was dealing with a left forearm issue late in camp), Melancon and Kela, and they have highly regarded young arms in their system, such as Ryan Weathers and MacKenzie Gore, who could impact the bullpen if/when they aren’t used in the rotation. So despite the spate of injuries, the Padres retain the makings of a good bullpen.
It seems every year the subject of Jansen’s waning stuff hangs over this club, and yet, every year, the Dodgers have one of the best bullpen ERAs in baseball (last year it was the very best, in fact). One way or another, that will probably happen again. But with Graterol unavailable at the start of the season due to an undisclosed reason, it will likely take some heavy lifting from the veteran Treinen and the young González. The Dodgers are so good at identifying upside that we can’t rule out a return to form from Corey Knebel, who had a 6.08 ERA in 13 1/3 innings after a difficult Tommy John recovery. The bullpen is not the Dodgers’ greatest strength, but it should be just fine.
The Rays were second on this list until closer Nick Anderson suffered a partial right elbow tear that will reportedly keep him out for at least the first half of the season. That’s a big blow to Kevin Cash’s “stable full of guys that throw 98 mph.” But Fairbanks and Castillo combined for a 2.23 ERA in 48 1/3 innings last year while striking out 30% of the batters they faced. Collin McHugh could be an important multi-inning weapon, and the Rays have arms aplenty in their system that could emerge here. Even without Anderson, the “Stable” seems relatively stable.
The Cardinals already had solid bullpen depth, but the return of Hicks from his 2019 Tommy John surgery is a source of enticement and excitement. He could wind up closing games for this club (as of this writing, nobody has been announced as the closer, so we’re just penciling in Reyes for now). Young lefties Genesis Cabrera and Tyler Webb, along with right-hander Ryan Helsley, have all been thrust into high-leverage situations before and will be again. The Cardinals have a lot of flexibility with their relief options, so they should be able to put together a good bullpen.
Oakland looks a lot different in the late innings with Hendriks gone. But who’s to say the team that helped Hendriks turn into an uber-reliever in the first place can’t piece things together without him? The late-winter signings of Rosenthal and Romo help. Rosenthal is a bit of a wild card, having had a 13.50 ERA (and no idea where the ball was going) as recently as 2019, but he redeemed himself last season (1.90 ERA with the Royals and Padres), and we’ll buy it. The 38-year-old Romo and 36-year-old Petit have managed to remain effective at their advanced ages, and Diekman had a sparkling 0.42 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 21 1/3 innings last season. There are also strong multi-inning options in J.B. Wendelken and Lou Trivino. So the A’s should still have a good bullpen.
The Twins look a lot different in the back end after the departures of May, Romo and Tyler Clippard. And while Colomé brings a lot of closing experience to the table, his stuff is not overpowering, and his walk rate is concerning. Another offseason import, Hansel Robles, lost his closing job with the Angels last year. Still, because we’ve seen Colomé, Rogers, Duffey and Robles get big outs before, and because internal youngsters like Jorge Alcala and Stashak have strengths that could play up in the ‘pen, the Twins merit inclusion here.
Honorable mentions: It felt weird leaving the Braves off this list, but they just look so different without Melancon, O’Day and Shane Greene. So let’s see how that develops, OK? Another club to keep an eye on is Cleveland, if only because young gas-throwers James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase could be a fun tandem to watch. And shout-out to whichever great-bullpen-to-be that we snubbed. Make it happen, Phillies!