MLB Handicapping: Best Bullpens to Bank On
by Trevor Whenham - 4/10/2013
Casual baseball bettors tend not to pay as much attention to bullpens as they should. The bullpen isn’t sexy — at least not unless there is a high-profile closer. With starters only expected to last five or six innings by a lot of teams these days, though, the quality of the bullpen, the availability of relievers on that day, and the recent form can make the difference between a bet that is packed with value and one that is a total dud. Here’s a handicapping look at four bullpens that have the potential to be big difference-makers this year:
It would be hard to make an argument for any bullpen other than Atlanta’s as the best in the league. Craig Kimbrel, entering his third year in the league, just keeps getting better. He had 42 saves last year and finished fifth in Cy Young voting to follow up his Rookie of the Year hardware the previous year. This season he has jumped out of the gates with just one hit in three saves. He’s far from the only arm for hitters to fear in that bullpen: Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty, though Venters will be out for a month with elbow woes, are going to be great. Jordan Walden is a new righty, and he has gotten off to a strong start. The team had the second best bullpen ERA in the league last year, and the Braves have a very good chance of improving on that this year.
If the Braves’ bullpen isn’t the best, the Reds likely will be — just as they were last year. They flirted with converting closer Aroldis Chapman into a starter this year, but they stuck with the status quo in the end. In five appearances already he has a win and two saves and hasn’t allowed a run, so he’s as sharp as he was last year when he had 38 saves. Jonathan Broxton is excellent and has started strong as well. Sean Marshall is dangerous as a lefty to set up Chapman. There is good depth, too, with guys like Sam LeCure and Manny Parra ready to eat innings. There are some concerns — J.J. Hoover has been lousy in his five appearances so far — but this is a unit that will again contend for the top spot statistically among bullpens.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays don’t have a whole lot of power in their lineup, so their bullpen is going to face a lot of pressure in tight games. The unit was the best in the AL last year, and it should be just as good this year. Fernando Rodney had 48 saves and a microscopic 0.60 ERA last year, and he’s back for more. His ERA is an ugly 16.20 so far thanks to three runs allowed in just 1.2 innings over two appearances, but it is still early. Joel Peralta saw his K/9 innings rate improve significantly last year, and he is again dealing strikeouts in early action. Jake McGee was quietly a revelation last year, though like Rodney he has struggled early on — five earned runs in 1.2 innings for a 27.00 ERA. Kyle Farnsworth is healthy and is a strong setup man as well. The unit needs to get better in a hurry, but they have the potential to make a real impact — and in a very public division they will have plenty of chances to deliver value for bettors.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers have spent like crazy, so it only makes sense that they have a strong bullpen to go with everything else. Given the strength of the rotation, this bullpen is going to get plenty of opportunities to protect a lead as well. Brandon League has been a different pitcher since joining the Dodgers during the season last year than he was in Seattle. He has picked up where he left off last year, and he has two saves in three appearances without allowing a hit or a run. He’s the closer for now, and if he keeps this up he’ll stay in the role. Kenley Jansen had 25 saves for the team last year, and he is a good security blanket behind League. He is a strikeout machine, and he already has four Ks in 2.2 innings. Beyond that guys like J.P. Howell and Ronald Belisario are very good. The Dodgers also have a ridiculous number of starters, so they will have the luxury of starters to provide long relief as needed — guys like Ted Lilly, Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang are candidates. There is more risk with this bullpen than the other three, but the upside is very significant.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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