MLB Power Rankings: Whose Bullpen Could Craig Kimbrel Help Most?
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a baseball team in possession of a pitching staff must be in want of some bullpen help. A club can always use extra relief pitching, no matter the quality or status of its existing crew; there’s no such thing as too much depth here. (And it looks like a certain C. Kimbrel is still available…)
So for this week’s edition of SI’s MLB Power Rankings, we’re putting a spotlight on the teams that could use the most help in this department. (For a refresher on how this series works, check out last week’s edition.) As always, April rankings are relying both on actual performance thus far and projected roster potential. To the list!
30. Miami Marlins (4-15, LAST WEEK: 29)
29. Baltimore Orioles (8-12, LAST WEEK: 28)
The Orioles, to be clear, are not actually in the market to add a reliever, because they’re not really in the market to add anyone. If they were, though? The bullpen would … well, the bullpen probably wouldn’t be first on the list, because it’s a pretty full list, but it would certainly be up there. Baltimore’s relief corps is arguably the worst in baseball: -0.7 FanGraphs WAR, 6.67 ERA, the highest home run rate and one of the lowest strikeout-to-walk rates. The Orioles have already used 17 different pitchers in relief (yikes-worthy in and of itself) and eight have posted an ERA above 9.00. Sure, ERA is easily thrown out of whack for relievers early in the season, skewed by a single poor outing, but…. this statistic actually feels pretty representative of the whole situation here. It’s bad.
Of course, given everything else about Baltimore, it’s only slightly worse than the starting rotation, and it’s hardly the central driving factor for the club’s atrocious run differential, third-worst in baseball. It sure doesn’t help, though!
28. Kansas City Royals (7-12, LAST WEEK: 30)
27. Cincinnati Reds (5-12, LAST WEEK: 23)
26. Colorado Rockies (6-12, LAST WEEK: 22)
25. Toronto Blue Jays (8-12, LAST WEEK: 25)
24. Chicago White Sox (7-11, LAST WEEK: 27)
23. San Francisco Giants (8-12, LAST WEEK: 26)
22. Detroit Tigers (9-9, LAST WEEK: 20)
21. Boston Red Sox (6-13, LAST WEEK: 11)
The bullpen isn’t Boston’s biggest problem. In fact, the relief corps has actually been one of the relatively few bright spots for the beleaguered reigning champions—but that’s ”bright” in that it has not actively and continuously harmed the team with a negative WAR, not “bright” as in actually good. With a 5.15 ERA, the bullpen has primarily relied on Heath Hembree (OK), Ryan Brasier (fine!), and Tyler Thornburg (yiiiiikes). There are other problems here—figuring out what on earth is happening with Chris Sale, locating the missing bat of Mookie Betts—but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to, say, bring back last year’s closer.
The Red Sox currently have the worst run differential to this point of any reigning champion in history, and if they don’t turn things around quickly, they’re going to be looking at a season that ends in September.
20. Los Angeles Angels (8-10, LAST WEEK: 19)
19. Arizona Diamondbacks (10-9, LAST WEEK: 21)
18. Texas Rangers (10-7, LAST WEEK: 24)
17. St. Louis Cardinals (10-8, LAST WEEK: 12)
Jordan Hicks, baseball’s most extreme flamethrower (average fastball velocity: 101 mph, yes, average), has been capably handling the role of closer here. His control still isn’t pristine, but it’s improved from last season, and he’s generally been strong on the mound. The Cardinals’ big bullpen addition from this winter, though? Andrew Miller has looked completely lost. He’s given up 10 runs in 6.2 innings, including three homers. It’s now been more than a year since he’s pitched like did at his peak, and it increasingly looks like he might not get back there, or even close to it. On a roster that’s otherwise been solid, but not exceptional, an addition here just might be what’s needed to keep contending in a tight NL Central.
16. Chicago Cubs (8-9, LAST WEEK: 10)
The Cubs have not been as bad as their record indicates. Their run differential is the best in the NL Central, despite their fourth-place status; their offense, with a 107 OPS+, has been decently above average, and their rotation, with a 4.09 ERA, can’t quite claim the same, but it’s been relatively fine(-ish). The bullpen, on the other hand? With a 5.25 ERA and a negative WAR, it could use some help. Brandon Morrow and Mike Montgomery, both key contributors from last year, are injured. (Meanwhile, Carl Edwards, Jr., another essential part of last year’s ‘pen, struggled enough to be demoted and then got injured.) Tyler Chatwood’s walk rate has remained frighteningly high, though not quite so high as last year.
There have been some solid spots—Brandon Kintzler and Pedro Strop have been just fine, for the most part—but these certainly haven’t been enough to improve the overall outlook. The NL Central isn’t a division where anyone can afford to have a serious weak spot, and right now, Chicago’s bullpen is looking like just that.
15. Oakland A’s (11-10, LAST WEEK: 8)
14. Cleveland Indians (11-7, LAST WEEK: 16)
13. Washington Nationals (9-8, LAST WEEK: 7)
The Nationals’ 8.04 relief ERA is the worst in baseball, by a long shot. Of course, there are some outliers skewing this—Trevor Rosenthal has only recently brought his down from infinity to 40.50, and neither Tony Sipp’s 13.50 nor Matt Grace’s 8.10 are doing much to help—but, at its core, it’s not ridiculously off. This bullpen, Sean Doolittle aside, has not looked good. The Nationals are struggling to live up to their potential in other ways (Trea Turner still has no expected return from his broken finger; Stephen Strasburg has not looked like himself) but the bullpen has been the clearest problem area thus far.
12. Minnesota Twins (9-7, LAST WEEK: 15)
11. San Diego Padres (11-8, LAST WEEK: 18)
10. New York Mets (10-8, LAST WEEK: 14)
The tweet above makes no sense, and yet it makes perfect sense. More than two years later, it still applies. Sure, Familia is now the setup man, rather than the closer. And Edwin Díaz, one of baseball’s very best closers, now owns that key spot. (In a very rigid way.) Otherwise, though, the bullpen very much still has the general vibe of, “oh, man, here it goes, might as well just transfigure into Winnie the Pooh and start dancing to Danza Kuduro.” In other words, they have a 5.87 ERA, second only to Washington in the National League. The Mets’ offense has so far been among the league’s best; its rotation has a remarkably high ceiling. And the relief corps … is there.
9. Milwaukee Brewers (12-8, LAST WEEK: 9)
The Brewers do not seem like they should be as good as they have. With a negative run differential, they statistically “should” have a winning percentage south of .500, rather than north of .600, according to FanGraphs’ BaseRuns. Yet here they are… mostly thanks to their offense, which has carried the team while the pitching has floundered.
Now, the rotation has been a bigger problem area here than the bullpen, but the relief crew hasn’t exactly been stable. Josh Hader has continued to do Josh Hader things, and Junior Guerra has been sharp. Otherwise… yikes. Corey Knebel is out for the season with Tommy John, and Jeremy Jeffress has only just returned from injury. The Brewers already have their work cut out for them in a tough division, and a shaky pitching staff certainly isn’t helping.
8. Pittsburgh Pirates (10-6, LAST WEEK: 17)
7. Atlanta Braves (9-9, LAST WEEK: 5)
The Braves’ need for relief aid was painfully clear this week. In the process of getting swept by the Diamondbacks, the bullpen blew two straight games and made a third impossible to win. Their situation looked bad even before Arodys Vizcaino underwent shoulder surgery, ruling him out for the rest of the season. They’ve had injury struggles, performance struggles … it’s just been bad, all the way around. This roster is otherwise promising, with a 114 OPS+ and solid starting pitching, but this bullpen is a clear area of need, and they can’t afford not to fix it.
6. Philadelphia Phillies (11-6, LAST WEEK: 13)
Philadelphia originally didn’t look like it was necessarily going to end up in this category. But David Robertson’s fresh injury—a flexor strain that sent him to the 10-day IL—makes the situation a little more interesting. It’s unclear just how long he’ll be out, or, perhaps more crucially, what he’ll look like upon his return; the reliever’s first few games this season were rocky until he stabilized more recently.
With several other notable contributors struggling to begin the season—like Juan Nicasio, José Álvarez, and Seranthony Dominguez—a boost here might be appreciated. The Phillies currently have the best record in the NL East, but in such a tough division, any potential path for separation should be appreciated.
5. New York Yankees (8-10, LAST WEEK: 6)
4. Seattle Mariners (13-8, LAST WEEK: 4)
3. Los Angeles Dodgers (13-8, LAST WEEK: 1)
The Dodgers have one of the best offenses in baseball, with a 128 OPS+. They have a solid rotation, with a 3.87 ERA. Their relievers, meanwhile, leave something to be desired. So far, Joe Kelly has been maddeningly erratic, Brock Stewart has floundered enough to be demoted, and Yimi Garcia has brought his share of problems, too. Kenley Jansen has looked close to his best, yes, but one man does not a ‘pen make. The Dodgers’ 4.78 relief ERA is among baseball’s bottom 10, and on a team that otherwise has so much going for it, with clear sights on October, this seems an easy choice to shore up.