MLB 2020: Ranking baseball’s top 10 bullpens

Jesse Pantuosco
July 24, 2020 - 10:05 am
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2019 was unmistakably the year of the home run and if Thursday was any indication—Giancarlo Stanton and Adam Eaton both went deep in the first inning of New York’s Opening night win in Washington—2020 promises to be no different. Launch angles and juiced balls are unfortunately (or fortunately, if you’re into the whole three outcomes thing) here to stay, but that doesn’t make relief pitching any less important. With teams enforcing stricter pitch counts than unusual amid a hurried, 60-game whirlwind of a season (don’t expect any starters to top the century mark in pitches this weekend), if there was ever a year for pens to shine, you’re looking at it.

Which relief staffs are best-suited for the 60-game grind? I can think of a few. Without further adieu, here are my top 10 MLB bullpens heading into the 2020 MLB season:

10. New York Mets

Clearly Keith Hernandez was not consulted in the making of this list. And while Hernandez isn’t wrong about Edwin Diaz’s disastrous debut season in Queens, I’m willing to cut the embattled right-hander some slack. Diaz bottomed out last season (5.59 ERA, seven blown saves) but let’s not forget he registered a colossal 57 saves—tied for the second-most in MLB history—while posting a stingy 1.96 ERA the year prior. If the flame-throwing Diaz can keep it in the park (the 15 long balls he served up in 2019 were a career-worst), the 26-year-old strikeout artist should be in for a bounce-back season. Outside of Diaz, perennial All-Star Dellin Betances (who defected from the Yankees in free agency), former starter Seth Lugo, ex-closer Jeurys Familia and left-handed specialist Justin Wilson (who also offers closing experience) round out what should be one of the league’s steadier setup units. As always, Jacob deGrom and Pete Alonso are the main attractions at Citi Field, but don’t you dare sleep on the Mets’ pen.

9. Los Angeles Dodgers

Kenley Jansen delivers a pitch at Dodger Stadium
Photo credit John McCoy, Getty Images

While Kenley Jansen’s once-dominant heater has lost some of its kick (Fangraphs charted his average fastball velocity at an even 92 mph last year, his lowest since 2012), we’re still talking about one of the most accomplished closers of the last decade, the owner of 301 MLB saves (second to Craig Kimbrel among active pitchers) and a lifetime 13.29 K/9. The 32-year-old may have encountered more hiccups than usual last season (3.71 ERA, career-high eight blown saves), but he’s still a proven ninth-inning commodity with World Series pedigree. Noticeably fatigued from the previous year’s playoff run with Boston, hard-throwing Joe Kelly fell flat in 2019, faltering to an uncharacteristically lackluster 4.56 ERA while signing L.A.’s death certificate by surrendering a go-ahead grand slam to Howie Kendrick in Game 5 of the NLDS. Fresh as a daisy after having the COVID layoff to regroup, we should see much better form from Kelly in 2020, the final year of his current contract. The Dodgers compiled MLB’s fifth-lowest bullpen ERA in 2019 (3.85) and could be even more imposing with the addition of Blake Treinen, an All-Star in 2018 (38 saves, 0.78 ERA for Oakland) and owner of arguably the league’s filthiest sinker.

8. Oakland Athletics 

Entering last year as an unremarkable journeyman, Liam Hendriks quickly emerged as Oakland’s latest diamond in the rough, sparkling with a 1.80 ERA and 124 strikeouts (13.13 K/9) over 85 innings of stellar work while usurping closer duties from incumbent Blake Treinen, ultimately making the latter expendable. A native Australian, the Perth-born right-hander led all relievers in wins above replacement (3.5) during his breakout 2019. Yusmeiro Petit couldn’t cut it as a starter at previous MLB stops in Arizona, San Francisco and Anaheim but the veteran has masterfully rebranded himself as one of the sport’s top setup arms, ranking among the league leaders in holds last season (29) while limiting opponents to a dismal .194 average. With lefty hammer Jake Diekman (lifetime .226 BAA) and well-traveled Joakim “Mexicutioner” Soria (221 career saves) in tow, the A’s and their relentless ensemble of late-inning ringers are a near-impossible nut to crack.

7. Atlanta Braves 

After years of neglect, the Braves finally made their pen a priority last summer, working the phones to acquire Mark Melancon, Chris Martin and Shane Greene at the July 31 trade deadline. They didn’t stop there, paying top dollar (three years, $39 million) to woo stud left-hander Will Smith in free agency. A.J. Minter flamed out spectacularly in his brief stint as closer last year, collecting a ghastly 7.06 ERA over 29 1/3 innings at the major-league level. That being said, the 26-year-old devours lefties and can bring the heat with high-90s cheese. Smith is still feeling the effects of COVID, leaving Melancon, he of three All-Star appearances and 194 big-league saves, to temporarily man Atlanta’s ninth-inning fort. Equipped with a promising but unproven rotation, expect the bullpen-rich Braves to rely heavily on their wealth of relief talent in 2020.

6. Houston Astros 

Roberto Osuna points to the sky after an Astros victory at Minute Maid Park
Photo credit Tim Warner, Getty Images

We've arrived at the elephant in the room, the villainous Astros who, frankly, dodged an enormous bullet returning to the field without fans following their infamous cheating scandal. Despite their penchant for corner-cutting and other sinful acts of baseball skullduggery (the late Charlie Murphy might call them “habitual line-steppers”), there’s no denying the Astros’ overflowing well of late-inning talent. Coming off his first All-Star appearance, 25-year-old Robert Osuna has already ascended to shutdown status (as his 154 lifetime saves and career .201 BAA would both attest to) while Ryan Pressly, last year’s MLB leader in holds with 31, handled his eighth-inning responsibilities with similar aplomb. Chris Devenski went off the rails with a concerning 4.83 ERA last year, but he still has a wipeout changeup in his arsenal. Houston’s pen was a bear down the stretch last season, cruising to a league-best 3.59 ERA in the second half. You don’t have to like them—in fact, you probably shouldn’t. But don’t forget the Astros, even without the aid of buzzers and other sign-stealing paraphernalia, are still a ruthless AL West powerhouse and plenty capable of spoiling MLB’s abbreviated 2020 (as if this hell-scape of a year could possibly be salvaged) by claiming another pennant.

5. Minnesota Twins 

After setting the league ablaze with a record 307 homers last year, the Twins have graduated from loveable underdogs to legitimate World Series contenders. The Bomba Squad’s star-studded lineup won’t be any less ferocious in 2020, particularly with the addition of former MVP Josh Donaldson (a rare offseason splurge for the fiscally-conservative Twins). And thanks to a quietly stacked bullpen flush with crafty veterans, Minnesota boasts all the familiar qualities of an AL nuisance. Ninth-inning gatekeeper Taylor Rogers came into his own with a breakout 2019 (30 saves, 11.74 K/9) while hulking right-hander Trevor May flourished as a late-inning enforcer (.184 BAA over 64 1/3 glorious innings). Not content with last year’s elite showing, the Twins added to their relief riches by rescuing bullpen savant Tyler Clippard (3.14 ERA over 816 major-league innings) from the free-agent abyss.

4. Tampa Bay Rays 

Tampa Bay’s bullpen brigade made significant headway in its ongoing quest for global domination last year, surging to a league-best 3.71 ERA while also leading the majors in holds with 116. As you’d expect from a team that operates on a shoe-string budget, the thrift-store Rays accomplished those feats largely without the aid of household names, receiving significant contributions from the anonymous likes of plate-pounding Jose Alvarado (his average fastball clocked in at a brisk 98.2 mph last year) and frequent “opener” Yonny Chirinos. Punch-out fiend Nick Anderson (110 Ks in only 65 innings last year) has been earmarked for Tampa Bay’s ninth-inning post, a role vacated by offseason trade casualty Emilio Pagan (2.31 ERA, 12.34 K/9). 

3. Milwaukee Brewers 

Josh Hader greets teammate Yasmani Grandal at home plate
Photo credit Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

After operating in a roving capacity a la Andrew Miller in previous years, Josh Hader transitioned into a more traditional closer role last season, demonstrating his high-leverage credentials by logging 37 saves and an elite 16.41 K/9 across 75 2/3 innings of sheer brilliance. Hader’s ugly collapse in Milwaukee’s Wild Card loss to Washington surely left a bad taste in his mouth (Trent Grisham’s fielding blunder in right field did little to help the situation), but one playoff catastrophe shouldn’t take away from the southpaw’s mystique. Opponents’ collective .146 career average against him lends further credence to that theory. Hader’s presence alone is enough for Milwaukee to warrant top-10 bullpen status. Having Corey Knebel, who once himself inhabited the Brewers’ ninth-inning throne, David Phelps and Texas Rangers alum Alex Claudio as bridges to Hader makes Milwaukee’s lights-out pen even more menacing.

2. San Diego Padres 

Kirby Yates was a hurricane for the Padres last year, anchoring San Diego’s bullpen with a 2019 for the ages (1.19 ERA, league-leading 41 saves). It took Yates four teams to hit his stride after disappointing in forgettable stints with Tampa, New York and Anaheim, but now that his full powers have been unleashed on MLB, there’s no turning back. San Diego’s relief outfit underwhelmed outside of the incomparable Yates last year, but the front office rectified that with the return of Drew Pomeranz and pulling the trigger on a trade for ex-Rays closer Emilio Pagan. Reliever-starter hybrid Cal Quantrill, a 2016 first-rounder and son of former big-leaguer Paul Quantrill, has ex-factor written all over him as the long-suffering Friars seek to squash what has been a 14-year playoff drought. 

1. New York Yankees 

Ace closer Aroldis Chapman on the mound for New York
Photo credit Hannah Foslien, Getty Images

A 6’4” monstrosity with flames coming off his fingertips, Aroldis Chapman is the quintessential late-inning intimidator, a real-life Rick Vaughn with unrivaled velocity and a vanishing slider that can level even the most potent hitters (Jose Altuve had no trouble bashing it to high heaven in the playoffs, but let’s see how he does without a buzzer feeding him intel). Chapman remains sidelined with COVID, though the intensity of his recent workouts would suggest he is on the mend. In the interim, Zack Britton, who submitted one of the great relief seasons of all-time during his immortal 2016 (0.54 ERA, a perfect 47-of-47 in save chances), should have no trouble filling the void left by Chapman in the ninth. Dellin Betances flew the coup in free agency, but even with his departure, the Bombers aren’t exactly hurting for relief talent. Armed to the teeth with slider-chucking Adam Ottavino, cannon-armed Tommy Kahnle (fun fact: Kahnle and I are distant relatives) and jack-of-all-trades Chad Green, New York’s immaculate bullpen is MLB’s current gold standard.

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