Brad Johnson

Saves and Steals

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Bullpen Review: NL East

Wednesday, February 7, 2018


Philadelphia Phillies

 

Hector Neris

Pat Neshek

Tommy Hunter

Edubray Ramos

Adam Morgan

Luis Garcia

 

Over the second half of 2017, the Phillies had one of the top performing bullpens in baseball. Neris was fine during that string of success, but it was the other guys who really shined. Neris will enter 2018 as the presumed closer, although his grip on the job could be more tenuous than we realize. He occasionally loses command of his premium splitter which puts a lot of pressure on an unimpressive fastball. He's good enough to close, but the Phillies are reaching a point in their rebuild where “good enough” won't cut it. Even if he loses the ninth inning job, he'll still pitch the late innings.

 

Philadelphia turned to free agency to re-sign Pat Neshek and add Tommy Hunter. The pair should provide consistency to an otherwise talented but volatile unit. Neshek is widely considered to be one of the best command relievers in the game. Coupled with his funky delivery, he's a tough opponent. His managers usually try to hide him from left-handed hitters. He throws more sliders than fastballs. As for Hunter, he began using a cutter more aggressively last season, leading to a spike in his strikeout rate. He ought to consider abandoning his sinker in favor of more cutters.

 

Ramos scuffled early in 2017. After a demotion and subsequent return on August 3, he posted a 2.70 ERA (1.55 FIP) on the strength of 12.49 K/9 and 2.03 BB/9. Command was an issue before the demotion (6.39 BB/9). Assuming he can maintain the improved walk rate, he could challenge Neris for the closer role. He's another guy who throws more sliders than fastball. Opponents couldn't do anything with the pitch. It should be noted that his fastball is probably below average.

 

Morgan, a lefty with a history of big platoon splits, had a similar experience for Ramos. Starting August 2, he turned a corner. He pitched to a 1.69 ERA (1.85 FIP) with 11.14 K/9 and 2.03 BB/9 over his final 26.2 innings. That even includes a three-run mess in his final outing. Not only did Morgan prefer his slider to the heater, he also used his changeup more often. The Phillies used Morgan as a multi-inning guy last year, but he could be converted into late-inning LOOGY duty.

 

Garcia is a right-handed hard throwing ground ball specialist who can absorb the middle innings in bulk. He combines his above average sinker with a plus slider and a newly minted above average changeup which he uses almost exclusively against left-handed hitters. This is a profile that can find it's way into the late innings. Given the quality stuff, it's a tad surprising he only managed 7.57 K/9 and 3.28 BB/9. Improved command could spark a breakout.

 

The Phillies have impressive depth. Francisco Rodriguez will make a comeback attempt as a non-roster invitee. Victor Arano posted a sub-2.00 FIP in a brief cup of tea. He's yet another guy who throws more sliders than fastballs. Southpaws Hoby Milner and Zac Curtis could see some work if anything happens to Morgan. Neither is fantasy relevant. Seranthony Dominguez is expected to take a big step forward now that he's been converted to relief. Other current starting pitchers could surge upon transitioning to the 'pen.

 

Miami Marlins

 

Brad Ziegler

Kyle Barraclough

Drew Steckenrider

Junichi Tazawa

Jarlin Garcia

Brian Ellington

 

For now, Ziegler remains the Marlins closer. The 38-year-old relies on a funky delivery and a relentless assault of the infield grass. Of pitchers with at least 600 innings, Ziegler's 66.1 percent ground ball rate in 643.2 career innings is the second highest recorded rate. Only Dennis Springer burned more worms. All those grounders ensures that Ziegler allows few home runs. For that reason, he's a steady if unspectacular reliever. A lack of strikeouts makes him a fringy fantasy asset – especially if/when he's traded into a setup role.

 

Savvy fantasy owners are already looking beyond Ziegler. It's only a matter of time before a contender discovers a need for a high floor veteran. Barraclough is probably the odds on favorite to jump into the ninth inning job. Last season, he lost one mph on his fastball along with a decline in his strikeout, swinging strike, and ground ball rates. His 3.00 ERA might have been very lucky (4.18 xFIP). Walks remain a huge issue (5.18 BB/9). He either needs to recover his 2016 stuff or cut down on the free passes. His slider is an elite offering. Unlike others fastball-slider specialists around the league, he can struggle to locate it for strikes – hence the high walk rate.

 

Steckenrider had a successful 34.2 inning debut as a 26-year-old. His fastball was a true weapon, inducing a slider-like whiff rate while allowing very little quality contact. Unfortunately, neither his slider nor changeup showed as even average offerings. Between the small sample of success and the lack of secondary pitches, I'm hesitant to jump on the bandwagon. That said, it wouldn't hurt to take a late round flier in deeper leagues. Since the Marlins don't figure to win many games, it may not make sense to chase holds in this bullpen. You just want to find the next closer.

 

Tazawa declined in a big way last season to the point where he could be gone from the roster by May. Brian Ellington has interesting 98 mph heat to go with terrible command. His is a name to file away for later. Nick Wittgren is an acceptable middle reliever. Jarlin Garcia and Justin Nicolino may provide some left-handed relief. Neither is impressive. If they opt to shift Sandy Alcantara to the bullpen – a long shot to happen in 2018 – he could quickly climb to a high leverage role.

 

Atlanta Braves

 

Arodys Vizcaino

Jose Ramirez

Sam Freeman

A.J. Minter

Chase Whitley

 

Beyond a whole lot of hard fastballs, there isn't much to see in the Braves bullpen. Vizcaino is the front-line guy. He features arguably the top performing curve ball in baseball. Unfortunately, despite sitting at 98 mph, his fastball is average at best. It can get hit around when his command isn't crisp – a not uncommon issue for Viz. The 27-year-old is also frequently injured. He's pitched just 152 career innings despite debuting in 2011. It's very likely the Braves will need late-innings reinforcements.

 

Ramirez is another hard thrower. He averaged 97 mph with his fastball. His slider and changeup both flashed plus, although inconsistency and iffy command have prevented him from becoming a true high leverage reliever. The ingredients are there for success if he ever improves the command.

 

Similarly, Freeman is a southpaw who sits 95 mph with a high ground ball rate. He had an issue with walks against right-handed batters (5.73 BB/9) but otherwise didn't show any platoon splits. Freeman features four quality offerings including a splitter he uses almost exclusively against opposite-handed hitters. His slider is largely reserved for lefty batters. There's some small breakout potential here, but his desire to end at bats quickly eats into the fantasy upside.

 

Guess what? Minter throws hard. He runs his fastball around 96 mph. He may also be the most likely to step forward as a future closer. Entering his age 24 season after racing through the minor leagues in just two years, Minter evenly mixes four seamers and sliders. Both pitches performed well in a 15 inning sample. Command was a problem at times in the minors so don't expect instant gratification.

 

The Braves will probably want Whitley around to serve as a long reliever. Don't mind him. A whole slew of other names could get involved in the bullpen. Mauricio Cabrera was briefly a closer in 2016 before it was discovered that he couldn't hit a target. He averaged 100 mph in the big leagues. Daniel Winkler shows potential during the rare occasions he's on the field. Jason Hursh has a healthy ground ball rate with the 95 mph heat the Braves have stockpiled in abundance. Rex Brothers and Jesse Biddle could be 'pen bound to serve as lefty specialists.



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You can read more from Brad Johnson on Rotoworld, FanGraphs, and RotoBaller. Find him on Patreon and Twitter @BaseballATeam.
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