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AL West Preview: The Bullpens

Bullpens are notoriously difficult to project, but we’ll try in this installment of our AL West preview.

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MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Our journey through the AL West continues with a look at the bullpens of the Mariners division rivals. A reminder: we’re comparing the three major player groups on each division rival to each other: the lineups, the starting rotations, and the bullpens. Hopefully, we’ll answer three questions for each of these teams: what’s new, what’s good, what’s bad.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Texas Rangers Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

Angels Projected Bullpen

Role Player Age Throws IP K/BB ERA FIP WAR
Role Player Age Throws IP K/BB ERA FIP WAR
Closer Raisel Iglesias 32 R 70 5.03 3.08 3.08 1.8
Setup Ryan Tepera 34 R 65 2.74 4.25 4.33 0.4
Setup Mike Meyers 30 R 68 3.19 3.99 3.97 0.7
Fireman Aaron Loup 34 L 62 3.10 3.69 3.79 0.5
Middle Archie Bradley 29 R 60 2.21 4.45 4.66 0.0
Middle Austin Warren 26 R 56 2.07 4.46 4.57 0.1
Middle José Quijada 26 L 42 2.30 4.14 4.36 0.1
Middle Jimmy Herget 28 R 35 2.12 4.90 5.01 -0.1
FanGraphs Depth Charts Projections

Yesterday we looked at the potential whiplash of the Angels starting rotation. Today we ask: who’s standing behind them each day, ready to step in?

The Angels offseason was a clear win in the bullpen column. The standout event was the re-signing of star closer Raisel Iglesias to a 4-year, $58m contract mere hours before the lockout started; I can only imagine the sighs as Angels fans released their months-held breath. The Cuban righty had an excellent year in 2021, posting his third-lowest FIP in 7 seasons (2.83) and an astounding 33.3 K%-BB%. The FanGraphs Depth Charts project a slight regression for Iglesias in 2021, which would still leave him the 5th best reliever in baseball by WAR with 1.8. So there’s no disputing that the Angels needed to re-sign Iglesias in order to maintain or improve their bullpen, and they did so. Unfortunately that means the M’s may still have to face him repeatedly (you may remember him as the pitcher who pitched the last inning against the Mariners in 2021) so that’s the opposite of a sigh for me.

The Angels improved the strength and depth of the rest of their bullpen by signing three additional FAs: Ryan Tepera (of the White Sox in 2021), Aaron Loup (Mets), and Archie Bradley (Phillies). Loup is the strongest addition of the three, a sidearmer southpaw who managed a 0.95 ERA in 56.2 innings last year and projects for a respectable 3.69 ERA this year. Loup and Bradley will work in middle relief, while Tepera is slotted in as the set-up guy. These three take the place of several departing relievers, including Former Mariner Steve Cishek, who signed a 1-year deal with the Nationals earlier this month.

As far as returning players, there are some guys Angels fans are likely to be interested in watching, but none likely to become known nationally or even divisionally. Mike Mayers had a very good year last year and this year will tell how sustainable his numbers were. Austin Warren debuted in July and had an exciting rookie showing. José Quijada and Jimmy Herget round out the likely Opening Day bullpen and, well, they have now been mentioned in this preview. There are a variety of maybe-MLB-caliber arms likely to start the year in triple-A Salt Lake, several of whom may test out that “maybe” in the near future if Jacob’s instincts about the starting rotation are correct and this bullpen sees a lot of innings early on in the season.

MLB ran a piece this week in which Angels manager Joe Maddon claims the revamped bullpen will be the difference maker for the team. The additions of Tepera and Loup and locking up Iglesias through 2025 certainly look to make a difference, in outcomes and in the frustrations of opposing teams, and fortify the back end of games for years to come. Whether they make the difference depends on whether the team’s other superstars can stay healthy and give them something to fortify. –LFS

MLB: World Series-Houston Astros at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Astros Projected Bullpen

Role Player Age Throws IP K/BB ERA FIP WAR
Role Player Age Throws IP K/BB ERA FIP WAR
Closer Ryan Pressly 33 R 66 4.49 2.96 2.99 1.6
Setup Ryne Stanek 30 R 70 2.55 4.16 4.32 0.3
Setup Héctor Neris 33 R 75 3.00 3.82 3.99 0.5
Fireman Phil Maton 29 R 64 2.61 4.02 4.14 0.2
Middle Blake Taylor 26 L 58 1.74 4.58 4.80 0.0
Middle Pedro Báez 34 R 54 2.17 4.61 4.82 0.0
Middle Rafael Montero 31 R 46 2.92 4.08 4.19 0.1
Long Josh James 29 R 32 2.30 4.28 4.44 0.0
FanGraphs Depth Charts Projections

You know who isn’t part of the Astros bullpen this season? Kendall Graveman. You know who’s a lock to be in the starting lineup for the Seattle Mariners this season — and many more? Abraham Toro. Haha.

Hahahaha.

Per FanGraphs’ depth chart projections for Houston’s geriatric bullpen (compiled from a 50-50 Steamer/ZiPS merger, alongside FG staff tweaks based on expected playing time — and probably some fairy dust), the eight relievers look to be worth 2.7 fWAR. This slots them under the Angels (where I hope Raisel Iglesias has been in the weight room this offseason, because it seems he’s been tasked with toting their whole bullpen on his back), but above the Mariners, A’s and whatever chaff Chris Young has stitched together in Arlington. Because bullpens are always the most volatile of the projections — and because I find it nearly impossible to keep track of Mariners relievers, let alone others — I’m simply going to give a brief rundown of the most salient component of each Astros relievers’ ethos.

  • Ryan Pressly - I remember he’s the good generic white guy reliever in Houston, because he has the same last name as Elvis. Wears his hat so low it covers his eyebrows, and was scary good (2.4 fWAR) last year. Precipitous velo drop this spring, but Pressly’s “not worried.”
  • Ryne Stanek - Feels like an Astros lifer, but only pitched there last season? Not the good Ry
  • Héctor Neris - Longtime Philly, the lone infusion of personality. His 2/$17M contract could be the sneaky steal of the Astros’ off-season.
  • Phil Maton - Older, less exciting brother of Nick
  • Blake Taylor - Pitches with — get this — his left hand. Ooh, ahhh.
  • Pedro Báez - If you see this man come in, get up, drink a glass of water, go for a walk, etc. Ya got time.
  • Rafael Montero - Oh yeah. Him. We all remember last season.
  • Josh James - Throws 100, but hasn’t been healthy since 2019.
  • Justin Verlander - Oops, sorry, how’d that name get here? Silly me.

Not listed here is Cristian Javier, whom Dusty Baker announced this week would be starting the season in the bullpen. —IM

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Toronto Blue Jays Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Athletics Projected Bullpen

Role Player Age Throws IP K/BB ERA FIP WAR
Role Player Age Throws IP K/BB ERA FIP WAR
Closer Lou Trivino 30 R 70 2.07 4.22 4.40 0.0
Setup Deolis Guerra 33 R 68 2.93 4.27 4.33 0.3
Setup A.J. Puk 27 L 70 2.47 4.01 4.19 0.4
Middle Domingo Acevedo 28 R 62 2.98 4.07 4.19 0.2
Middle Kirby Snead 27 L 52 2.61 3.84 3.99 0.2
Middle Sam Moll 30 L 56 1.95 4.23 4.43 -0.1
Middle Grant Holmes 26 R 48 1.93 4.75 4.85 -0.1
Middle Dany Jiménez 28 R 44 2.44 3.85 4.06 0.1
FanGraphs Depth Charts Projections

Like every aspect of Oakland’s roster, the bullpen will look mighty different than it did in 2021. Several stalwarts have departed, including Andrew Chafin, Jake Diekman, and Sergio Romo. Yusmeiro Petit remains unsigned, so ostensibly the 37-year-old could run it back with the A’s for the fifth straight year, but he’s not likely to bridge the gap between the late 2010s death pens and this diminished group. The present assemblage in Oakland’s relief corps is, like most bullpens, peppered with possible standouts. But there are such limited examples of arms with track records of success, or even full seasons of health in any capacity, that Oakland has one of the worst projected pens in the league.

Lou Trivino is the de facto closer for the Elephants of the East Bay. He’s fine, good even! Remember when Taylor Williams suddenly was Seattle’s closer in 2020? Oakland decided that was fun enough to give it a whirl. And hey, maybe they’ll get a Matt Brash out of it too! Behind Trivino is… any number of unknowns. The best bet for setup work is Petit’s spiritual successor, Deolis Guerra, who enters his age-33 season as an example of how service time can really do relievers dirty. Guerra debuted in 2015 with the Pirates, the third team he’d pitched for already in his professional career. He’s since appeared in games for five others, including 3/5ths of the AL West, most recently the 2021 A’s. If all goes right, Guerra will reach arbitration next year for the first time in his career, headed into his age-34 season, where in all likelihood he will be non-tendered before the fact. The man signed with the New York Mets in 2005 and was part of the package that brought Johan Santana from Minnesota to Queens.

It doesn’t get better from there, but it does at least gain… variance. A.J. Puk once soared to the top of prospect lists, but his trouble with actualizing results and diminished stuff to boot following several injuries has him in a bullpen role long term. Domingo Acevedo was a longtime Yankees farmhand with impressive stuff and struggles missing bats as he rose further in the minors. Much like Puk, health has been a huge hurdle, and has taken a tick off many of his initial expectations. Newcomer Kirby Snead is a moderately intriguing arm, as part of the return for Matt Chapman from Toronto. He is a lefty specialist first and middle reliever second, but Seattle’s southpaw swingers will see plenty of him.

I genuinely don’t want to be lazy but if we go further down the list, we’re looking at variants on the same theme. Sam Moll, Paul Blackburn, Brent Honeywell Jr., James Kaprelian, there is, or was, potential in this group, and hopefully for Gang Kelly Green, that resurfaces, but it is a lot to squint and expect serious innings from this group. And if Oakland cuts further from their rotation, they will be asked to bear an even heavier burden. To add insult to injury, Oakland’s farm system is grimly pitching-poor. There are few true reinforcements, but plenty of innings will be there for the taking. Someone must seize them, or see themselves, like the rest of their club, swallowed by misery. —JT

MLB: Texas Rangers at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Rangers Projected Bullpen

Role Player Age Throws IP K/BB ERA FIP WAR
Role Player Age Throws IP K/BB ERA FIP WAR
Closer Joe Barlow 26 R 66 1.96 4.67 4.74 -0.1
Setup Spencer Patton 34 R 64 2.40 4.48 4.43 0.2
Setup Brett Martin 27 L 61 2.59 4.02 4.06 0.3
Fireman Garrett Richards 34 R 82 2.40 4.58 4.51 0.2
Middle Greg Holland 36 R 40 2.05 4.62 4.52 0.0
Middle Josh Sborz 28 R 55 2.65 4.23 4.12 0.2
IL José Leclerc 28 R 32 2.58 3.91 4.02 0.1
IL Jonathan Hernández 25 R 36 2.14 4.64 4.57 0.0
FanGraphs Depth Charts Projections

If you thought the Rangers starting rotation was thin, just look at the list of relievers above. Sure, they made some splashy moves and spent over half a billion dollars in free agency, but their pitching staff is the biggest reason why they’re projected to fall well short of .500 in 2022. Nowhere is that more evident than in their bullpen. None of the relievers listed above is projected to come anywhere close to league average production. Just one of them is projected to post an ERA under four, and Leclerc will start the year on the Injured List while he recovers from Tommy John surgery.

Joe Barlow finished last season sharing ninth inning duties with Spencer Patton and both of them should continue in those same roles to start 2022. Neither should strike fear into the hearts of opposing lineups when they take the mound in a high leverage situation. Barlow had gaudy strikeout totals throughout his minor league career, though they didn’t show up in his first taste of the majors. His success as the closer will greatly depend on his ability to command his excellent fastball/curveball combo; ugly walk rates held him back from ascending through the farm system quickly, though he mostly had them under control in the big leagues.

To give their bullpen a little more veteran experience, the Rangers signed Garrett Richards to a one-year deal and Greg Holland to a minor league deal this spring. Manager Chris Woodward has already gone on record stating that Richards will be used in a multi-inning relief role in 2022. That was how he ended his time in Boston last year after struggling to post a 5.22 ERA and a 5.15 FIP through mid-August in their rotation. After MLB started enforcing the sticky stuff ban, Richards had to completely reinvent his repertoire and approach to pitching. Holland is likely just a shell of his former elite self; he really hasn’t been the same since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2016. Without much depth in the bullpen, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Holland get increasingly higher leverage appearances as the season goes on, especially if Barlow or Patton falter.

And then there’s the relievers who are slated to start the season on the Injured List. I already mentioned Leclerc above. He was supposed to be the Rangers closer of the future after a breakout season in 2018. They even signed him to a four-year extension after that phenomenal year. Unfortunately, his followup season was a disaster and then a myriad of health problems have kept him off the mound for nearly all of the last two seasons. He’s scheduled to return from his rehab mid-season and could be a greatly-needed boost to the relief corps if he’s fully healthy. Jonathan Hernández is also aiming for a return to the majors around the same time after undergoing his own Tommy John surgery. —JM


AL West Bullpen Summary

Team ERA FIP Cumulative fWAR
Team ERA FIP Cumulative fWAR
Angels 4.04 4.22 3.6
Astros 3.81 4.06 3.0
Athletics 4.10 4.32 0.9
Mariners 3.95 4.17 1.9
Rangers 4.38 4.43 0.5
FanGraphs Depth Charts Projections

Relievers are notoriously difficult to project. Their ability to thrive one moment and crash and burn the next doesn’t really mix well with complex projection systems that rely on large sample sizes for stability. With that said, the Mariners bullpen looks seriously under-projected here. Yes, they have the lowest ERA above, but their projected fWAR total falls well short of both the Astros and Angels. With a ton of new investment in 2022, the Angels project to have the best bullpen in the division, a significant change from the last few seasons. The less said about the Athletics and Rangers relief corps, the better.