At last, the Mariners lead the division in one of these previews. 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.
Angels Projected Bullpen
You’d expect a team that had a 2022 starting staff that put up solid numbers only to be felled by the league’s fifth-worst bullpen by fWAR to go out that off-season and load up on relief pitchers, generally the most plentiful and least expensive resource available in free agency. However, this was a poor year for free agent relief pitching, with the best names flying off the board in a matter of days, so instead of going all-in at the top of the market, the Angels immediately went dumpster-diving, signing a plethora of also-rans and fringe arms–Jacob Webb, Chris Devenski, Jonathan Holder, Nash Walters, and Cesar Valdez–to minor-league contracts. In the first week of December they made their first major move to address the bullpen, offering a two-year big-league contract to Carlos Estevez, who’s had a journey surviving the Rockies that falls just short of Joel and Ellie’s in The Last of Us; shortly after that, they signed former Guardians farmhand Justin Garza and veteran Matt Moore to one-year contracts.
Having traded away their closer, Raisel Iglesias, at last year’s trade deadline, it appears the Angels will be going with a closer-by-committee model, much to the frustration of fantasy baseball fans everywhere. Estevez seems like the favorite to assume the bulk of closer duties, as it’s a role he stepped into at times in Colorado, and his career ERA of 3.57 away from Coors indicates his stuff–an upper-90s fastball with ride and a late-breaking slider–should play better when regularly thrown at sea level. Estevez will be battling it out with incumbent Jimmy Herget, who had the second-most saves behind Iglesias last season; Herget boasts some perfectly cromulent numbers as a late-inning reliever but without the strikeout flash you’d hope for in a closer, punching out just under 24% of batters faced. 35-year-old Ryan Tepera, who also collected some saves for the Iglesias-less Angels last season, might factor into this mix as well, although he too is more of a contact manager than a strikeout artist.
Should the late innings demand a left-hander, the Angels have old friends Jose Quijada and World’s Most Exhausted Dad Aaron Loup. Loup was actually pretty good at holding down the Mariners last year; his 10 strikeouts against Seattle are more than he recorded against any other team, so expect to see him trotted out literally any time Jarred is due up to bat late in close games.
In the middle of the pack is a host of mostly-familiar names: Andrew Wantz, who should get a good chorus of boos the next time he takes the field at T-Mobile Park for starting the infamous brawl; contact manager Jaime Barría in long relief; and Matt Moore, new to the Angels but with over a decade of MLB service time, will look to repeat a career-high strikeout rate achieved with Texas last season while battling his old bête noire, command. Zack Weiss might not twig a ton of memories, neither as a one-time Mariner farmhand nor as a 2022 Angel, but he’s maybe got the best swing-and-miss stuff out of this crew, as long as he can command it.
What’s new: this year fireballing relief prospect Chris Rodriguez looks to have a healthy big-league season after losing all of last season to a back injury (what is up with Angels pitching prospects and back injuries?); if healthy and able to find his command post-injury, he could be a difference-maker in a bullpen that specializes more in managing contact than in striking people out. Beyond that, there’s always the possibility one of the players from the Angels’ infamous “Oops! All College Pitchers” 2021 draft earns a mid-season promotion to the bigs, which is actually one of the most interesting things to conceive about this high-floor but low-ceiling, strikeout-allergic bullpen.
The Angels’ bullpen is projected by PECOTA for about 2 WARP, and by ZiPS for 3.4–reasonable, safe, fine numbers. If the Angels’ coaching staff is able to coax something out of Estevez that wasn’t there in Colorado, whether by elevation or innovation, that could immediately upgrade the entire outlook of this bullpen. However, pitching to protect a lead is very different from pitching to minimize a deficit, and it’s hard not to be skeptical of a crew that’s largely been tasked with doing the latter being able to seamlessly adjust to the former. —KP
Astros Projected Bullpen
Good God, the 2022 Houston ‘pen was really good.
Like, extraordinarily good.
We’re talking a 84 FIP- (1st), 90 xFIP- (2nd), 3.47 SIERA (1st), 18.2 K-BB% (2nd), 1.09 WHIP (2nd), and so on and so forth. Of their 8 relievers from last season who had 20 or more appearances, none had a ERA+ below league average, five of them had FIPs that started with 2 - their second-highest FIP as a group was 3.32.
You get the point.
So, what’s the deal for 2023? Let’s keep this quick, I know you don’t really want to read this:
Hate this for the AL West and fans of justice/a sense that greater universal good that triumphs over evil. The closest thing we’ve got to an addition here is a full season of Hunter Brown, a 2019-draftee who made 20 appearances last season for a 1.89 FIP. Again, just awful news. This is a pen that truly has no weaknesses, other than that relievers are just generally prone to small sample size bullshit, though the underlying numbers all look good here too. Most of their arms in this pen could slot in nicely to the back end of a lot of teams pens. Here’s some of the notable arms to watch for this season.
Houston used him as their closer last season. He converted a stellar 33 of 37 save opportunities, He throws his stellar curveballs and sliders a combined 65% of the time, and gets devastating movement on both. His curve breaks 7 inches more than average, while the slider gets 46% more break than average, and fires in at around 90 mph. He also sported a 28.6% K-BB rate last year, good for 8th in the league (but behind Andrés Muñoz).
He will likely lock down the game in the ninth inning again for Houston, who do a slight closer-by-committee approach as opposed to a true “fireman” approach. Pressly’s last blown save was July 29th, 2022, against *checks notes* the Seattle Mariners, where he gave up a two-run, ninth-inning single to… *checks notes harder, deciphers a once-familiar-but-now-nearly-unrecognizable-name* …Abraham Toro.
A new addition to the late-inning terror that is the ass-end of Houston’s pitching staff, most M’s fans probably remember him most for the sequence from last June when he hit Ty France, gave up a homer to Julio, and then threw a ball near Eugenio’s head, causing Scott to go full red ass on the Houston coaching staff. Neris and Houston’s manager Dusty Baker ended up with multi-game suspensions for the incident, which adds a little bit of haha-funny to the whole affair.
Bench-clearing aside, Neris had another great season last year in his first campaign with Houston. He was one of their workhorses, making 70 appearances and racking up a ‘pen-high 1.6 fWAR last season. He has four average to above-average pitches, led most dominantly by his otherworldly splitter.
Hector Neris, Dirty 85mph Splitter. ✌️ pic.twitter.com/nOirxoKKU3— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 22, 2022
The low arm-slot he throws out of only accentuates the drop of his splitter, which is complemented by a four-seamer, slider and sinker, all of which had a negative RV last year.
Mariners fans will likely see a lot of Neris this season.
Abreu led this fearsome group in FIP, posting a 2.12, good for 11th among relievers last season. He doesn’t rank quite as highly in K-BB% rate due to his higher walk rate (over 10% is bad news), but the 35.6% K-rate? The K-rate that ranks in the 3rd percentile in the league? Yeah, that’ll play.
He throws his slider 45% of the time, and it is a nasty piece.
Bryan Abreu, Filthy Overlays:— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) November 3, 2022
-90mph Slider & 100mph Fastball
-98mph Fastball & 90mph Slider pic.twitter.com/a99FniNFYQ
It bends hard and he throws it firm, around 90 mph, and it plays well off of his fastball that sits 97 and touches 100. He also throws a curveball that will be better than a get-me-over pitch once he figures out where it’s going. That’s a common theme for him overall - if he can command this stuff, he’ll be a lights-out cog in a machine full of lights-out guys. And if not? He’ll still be one of the better relievers in this league. —NV
Athletics Projected Rotation
The biggest name in the A’s bullpen–for now–is Trevor May. From 2016 to 2020, he struck out 32.7% of the batters he faced with the Twins, good for 20th out of 420 pitchers who threw at least 150 innings. He spun his mid-3s ERA and FIP into a two-year, $15.5 million deal with the Mets, and while his 2021 was par for his course, he had a weird 2022. His start to the year was a disaster, but in May, the Einsteins on the Mets’ medical staff found that they’d been having him pitch through a stress fracture near his elbow. After a lengthy IL stint, he pitched back to form in August and September, getting back to a 35.7% strikeout rate. So now he’s with the A’s hoping that bounceback sticks, and the A’s are hoping they’ve picked up a trade chip for the deadline.
Behind May, we can expect to see Zach Jackson and Dany Jiménez take what few high-leverage innings are available to 2022’s Athletics. Jackson, who the A’s picked up in the minor-league portion of 2020’s Rule 5 Draft, debuted last year with a wonderfully weird delivery, where he waves his glove at you and follows that up with short arm action so you don’t actually see his release. This gave him first-percentile extension, but the deception seemed to make up for it, as he struck out 67 batters in just 48 innings. If he ever gets his command under control–he had the worst walk rate in MLB last year–he could really be something. Jiménez is another late debuting reliever with bad extension. He throws his slider more than 60% of the time, and he’s got a habit of leaving it in the middle of the plate. It says a lot that he’s probably Oakland’s third-best reliever.
Having sent A.J. Puk to meet up with Jesus Luzardo in Miami, Oakland’s pile is now roughly what you’d expect out of a team with a 100-loss projection. Old friend Drew Steckenrider recently signed a minor-league deal as he looks to hang on just a little longer. Sam Moll dominated the Mariners last year, but basically nobody else, and will attempt to put up his first season with positive fWAR. If Trevor May is the biggest name in the A’s pen, the best name is Kirby Snead, who matches his moniker out of Dr. Seuss with lettuce out of a L’Oreal commercial. Deolis Guerra was pretty good for the A’s in 2021, but he missed all of last year to Tommy John surgery, and maybe the best indication of how his recovery’s going is that he couldn’t do better than a minor-league deal with Oakland.
And then there’s one mainstay of the A’s bullpen that I haven’t mentioned yet because I wanted to save my favorite for last. Like Jackson and Jiménez, Domingo Acevedo is another A’s reliever who didn’t see real MLB action until his late 20s. After multiple turns on the DFA-release-re-sign carousel, first with the Yankees, and then with the A’s, he finally debuted in 2021. Befitting that history, he’s not a particularly remarkable player, but he’s still my favorite. Why? This: —ZM
Rangers Projected Bullpen
After spending oodles of money on their lineup and starting rotation, the one area of their team the Rangers haven’t invested in at all is their bullpen. It’s the main reason why they’re projected to fall behind the Mariners and Angels in the battle for second place in the AL West and it’s the reason why they’re probably a year away from truly contending for a playoff spot. There is a little bit of talent here, but the depth is just so shallow that there’s simply no backup plan in case of emergency.
The frontrunner to open the season as their closer is José Leclerc. You may remember him from this wonderful moment from last season:
Once upon a time, Leclerc looked like he was going to be a dominant closer for Texas for years to come. After a breakout season in 2018, they signed him to a four-year extension with two team options for the 2023 and ‘24 seasons. Unfortunately, he couldn’t replicate his success after signing his big deal and then missed nearly all of 2020 and 2021 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He returned to the mound last summer and was merely okay. They’re hoping he’ll regain some of that early-career dominance now that he’s fully healthy and another year removed from his elbow injury.
Their best reliever is left-hander Brock Burke. His excellence last year was a big reason why Texas was content to let Matt Moore walk in free agency. He posted an ERA under two with an excellent 3.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio and was commonly deployed as a multi-inning fireman. His 82.1 innings led all qualified relievers and he should see plenty of time in high-leverage situations no matter when they pop up during the course of a game. Jonathan Hernández will likely act as a more traditional setup man. Like Leclerc, Hernández missed all of the 2021 season due to his own Tommy John surgery and only returned midway through last year. He doesn’t have a long track record of excellence, just half a season in 2020 where he put up a 3.19 FIP in 27 appearances. Still, the Rangers will trust him with high-leverage work because there really aren’t many other options.
Filling out the rest of the ‘pen will be an assortment of familiar middle relievers and a plethora of veterans looking to latch on with a club this spring. Joe Barlow had spent some time during the last two seasons as the Rangers closer but he really fell apart last year, eventually missing nearly two months of the season with blister issues. Taylor Hearn will be returning to the bullpen after trying to convert to a starter early last year. That experiment failed and he’ll act as a long-reliever and a second lefty this year. With so many injury concerns in their rotation, Texas will also likely carry Jake Odorizzi as a swing-man in case of emergency. They traded for him very early in the offseason before going on their spending spree and he was pushed out of a spot in the rotation by all their new additions.
After those six, it’s anyone’s guess at who might fill the last two spots in the relief corps. The Rangers brought in a ton of veteran relievers as non-roster invitees this spring and also have a few more in-house options that could be used to fill out the back end of the ‘pen. The group of veterans includes familiar names like Danny Duffy, Dominic Leone, Ian Kennedy, Reyes Moronta, and Zack Littell. All of those guys have had some success in the recent past, but it’s anyone’s guess what they’ll bring this season. Duffy seems a little redundant with Hearn also on the roster, but any of the other right-handed veterans have as good a shot to make the roster if they have a decent spring showing. The other options already on the 40-man roster include Josh Sborz, John King, or Yerry Rodriguez. The biggest problem they’re going to face is a lack of flexibility in their bullpen. Hernández, Burke, Barlow, and Hearn all have minor league options remaining but things would have to get really bad to see them sent back to Triple-A. Sborz is out of options and Odorizzi is too important as a spot starter to ditch him. Of the NRIs in camp, only Moronta has an option year remaining. If Texas does choose to roster Sborz or any of those veterans, they’ll be pretty hamstrung in their ability to shuttle relievers up and down between the big leagues and Triple-A throughout the season. —JM
AL West Bullpen Summary
There’s clearly three distinct tiers of relief corps within the division. The Mariners and Astros both have outstanding bullpens, the Rangers and Athletics have a middling collection of relievers, and the Angels really need to rethink their late-inning strategy. With Seattle, Los Angeles, and Texas projected to finish so close to each other in the standings, this is the one area that could prove to be the differentiator between those three clubs.