Spring Training is officially under way. Happy baseball season! It's time to continue our division-by-division bullpen reviews. If you prefer a zoomed out version of this article, click over to the All Bullpen Review. Over the last two weeks, we evaluated the NL East and AL East. Shall we move along to the NL Central?
I welcome any and all criticism or suggestions. Think I missed somebody? Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @BaseballATeam.
Carl Edwards Jr.
I don't know if the Cubs are actually going to use an eight-man bullpen, but that's the number of should-be major league relievers on the roster. Curiously, the club has settled on Morrow as their closer despite a very short track record of success. Yes, he looked the part last season, but he's also missed most of the last 10 seasons with injuries - he debuted in 2007. The Dodgers abused him during the postseason which could spell trouble if the Cubs want to squeeze 60 regular season innings and another October run out of Morrow's arm. Luckily, Edwards is a promising potential closer. Both Cishek and Wilson have closing experience. Even Strop can do in a pinch - assuming he hasn't fallen completely out of favor with manager Joe Maddon.
Those are the red flags with the newly minted closer. If you can bring yourself to look past them, it's easy to see why Chicago wanted to roll the dice. Last season, Morrow featured a near-elite 98 mph fastball, slider, and cutter. All three pitches dominated opponents. His 2.06 ERA, 10.31 K/9, and 1.85 BB/9 would have fit comfortably in the top tier of closers. He could be the top closer bargain in all of baseball.
Cishek was a mostly reliable closer before Edwin Diaz up and shoved him out of the way. While he doesn't dazzle with physical presence or big velocity, his deceptive delivery and improving command add up to an effective late-inning reliever. Cishek is death to right-handed hitters which could give Maddon some situational flexibility to occasionally use him in the ninth inning. Although he has platoon splits, lefties aren't such a problem that he can't face them. It's possible he'll secretly be one of the top performing closer handcuffs in the league.
For 40.1 innings, Wilson carried a bad Tigers bullpen. He posted a 2.68 ERA, 12.27 K/9, and 3.57 K/9 in Detroit on the back of a 14.3 percent swinging strike rate. Upon joining the Cubs, Wilson fell apart - a 5.09 ERA, 12.74 K/9, 9.68 BB/9, and only 8.6 percent swinging strike rate in 17.2 innings. It's probably reasonable to assume that he'll rebound this spring. If not, it's only a short hike to DFA-land for the lefty. Speaking of southpaws, Duensing is a card-carrying LOOGY, although he doesn't have to be used as a platoon arm.
Edwards is the guy everybody wants in the closer role. He leans on a simple two pitch repertoire. His fastball is nigh unhittable. He allowed a .160 average and .236 slugging percentage with the pitch while inducing an elite whiff rate. The curve ball is even better - a .096 average and .253 slugging percentage. When batters swung at it, they missed over half the time. Walks - and command in general - have been an issue for Edwards. Cubs fans undoubtedly remember the Carlos Marmol era. For now, it's probably better for Edwards and the team that he's used as a setup reliever. If the command ever tightens up to match the stuff, he'll be a monster.
Strop has produced a sub-3.00 ERA in six of the last seven seasons. For maybe 27 other teams, he's a primary setup man or fringe closer. In Chicago, he's just another guy. Montgomery was pushed into a swingman role when the Cubs signed Yu Darvish. He's a useful real world reliever, but his stuff doesn't play up enough to be fantasy relevant. Grimm is the obvious cut if Chicago goes with a seven-man bullpen. He's had issues with allowing too much hard contact in recent seasons.
Knebel looks an awful lot like Craig Kimbrel minus the command breakout. He combines a punishing 98 mph fastball with an elite curve ball. Knebel's 1.78 ERA, 14.92 K/9, and 4.74 BB/9 paint the full picture - he's an untouchable relief ace with suspect command. That walk rate is going to eventually come back to bite him. Intermittent slumps like the one experienced by Dellin Betances last season are likely. When he's on, that gaudy strikeout rate puts him firmly in the elite reliever camp.
Barnes is a solid source of late-inning volume. He mixes a 97 mph fastball and 91 cutter (or baby slider, slutter, whatever term you prefer). The cutter is a devastating pitch, one he should throw far more frequently in my opinion. His primary fastball is fine, but I'd prefer to see it used as a change of pace. Coming off his first full season in the majors, Barnes may finally feel secure enough to move away from the harder fastball. His cutter is good enough to be used almost exclusively. He'll sometimes take a little off the pitch to make it a true slider.
Milwaukee fans may prefer Hader to handle the eighth inning after he steamrolled opponents in 47.2 relief innings (35 appearances). I suspect the Brewers will keep the southpaw in a multi-inning role - at least for the duration of 2018. I know some fantasy owners hope to see him in the rotation, but he's probably going to stick as a late-inning reliever and swingman. He barely touched his secondary pitches last season, instead living with a high fastball. He reminds me of Sean Doolittle minus the elite walk rate.
Jeffress, a former Brewers closer, is back in Milwaukee after a failed stint in Texas. Upon returning, he recovered his above average swinging strike rate. Walks and command in general remained a problem. If he can rediscover the sub-3.00 BB/9 rates he posted from 2014 through 2016 while maintaining a 60 percent ground ball rate, he'll be a useful source of holds. Albers is a full inning lefty who doesn't really have platoon splits. He may still be used as a late-inning LOOGY simply because Hader isn't a match for that role.
The club will need two more relievers. Ernesto Frieri, J.J. Hoover, and Wade Miley are in camp as non-roster invitees. Miley is probably most likely to make the club as a long reliever or fifth starter. Rotation depth like Yovani Gallardo, Junior Guerra, and Brent Suter could also find their way into the bullpen.
Rivero is legitimately one of the best relievers in baseball. The rest of this bullpen leaves something to be desired. His fastball keeps climbing on the radar gun. He averaged 99 mph last season. Hitters can't do anything with it. Unfairly, he throws a plus changeup, slider, and curve. My only concern is his usage. He's thrown 152.1 innings over the last two seasons. A slightly lighter workload seems to be in order, especially since the Pirates have locked him into a contract extension.
Hudson is just a guy who throws hard in search of a breakout. His slider performed like an elite offering last year, but he didn't use it nearly enough. His fastballs and changeup accounted for nearly three-quarters of his pitches. They're all well-below average offerings. If he buffs his slider usage above 40 percent, he could finally live up to expectations.
Acquired in the Gerrit Cole trade, Feliz is a potential high-impact reliever. His stuff looks closer-worthy, but he's yet to produce results. His 96 mph fastball and wipeout slider induced healthy whiff rates. He also made far too many mistakes over the plate - mistakes which were hammered into the bleachers (1.50 HR/9). There's room for upside in this profile. By comparison, Schugel is somebody who will pitch some innings - probably without ever being fantasy relevant.
Too many guys could potentially round out this bullpen. Joe Musgrove was superb as a reliever last season. His rotation job isn't a lock, and he's also battling some early-camp shoulder soreness. Former Giants Kyle Crick and George Kontos are on hand, as is the superbly named Dovydas Neverauskas. Steven Brault seems destined for a long relief role - at least early in the season.
For fantasy purposes, the Reds are just a tad annoying. Iglesias made 63 appearances, 18 of which were multiple innings. That effectively ensures that he can't work multiple days in a row. The multi-inning closer approach was an adaptation to a terrible bullpen. Now that the unit has a little bit of depth and talent, perhaps Iglesias will be used in a more traditional single-inning role. His velocity spiked last season from 93 mph in 2016 to 96.4 mph in 2017. He has some platoon issues. Right-handed hitters can't handled his slider. Lefties haven't done anything against it either, but he's clearly uncomfortable throwing it. Instead he uses a far less successful changeup. I'm expecting 10.00 K/9, 3.00 BB/9, and a sub-3.00 ERA. If he falls into a slump, Great American Ballpark is a very unforgiving home venue.
Despite pitching well since the start of 2016, Hernandez has bounced around four organizations. He's yet another reliever who's learned to adapt by throwing his breaking balls over 50 percent of the time. Home runs have been an issue throughout his career, making him a risky holds candidate in Cincinnati.
Lorenzen feels like somebody who should eventually break out in the bullpen. He still toys with six pitches, although his fourseamer and changeup are rarely used. His 97 mph sinker is a useful weapon, as are his slider and curve ball. He throws far too many cutters. It's a pitch he should put in his back pocket. He'll likely continue to fill a multi-inning role. Holds and a handful of saves could follow.
Cincinnati has a type: hard throwing ground ball pitchers. It's a sensible adaptation to their home park. First, let's quickly touch upon Peralta. He's the token left-hander. It's not yet clear if he's a LOOGY or full-inning guy. Hughes is the most established and softest-tossing (93 mph) of the sinker specialists. Kevin Shackleford and Austin Brice also fit the profile, albeit with a much shorter track record. Velocity plus ground ball stuff can produce the occasional surprise performer.
St. Louis Cardinals
Gregerson isn't anybody's first choice for a closer. To me, it's weird that the so-called contending Cardinals have yet to push him into a setup role. Greg Holland continues to lurk in free agency. Tony Watson cost nothing. They could at least create some competition. Gregerson leans on his slider, throwing the pitch half the time. He's able to use it to induce over a strikeout per inning along with plenty of ground balls. Don't worry too much about the 4.57 ERA from 2017 - that was built on some bad luck with home runs. He's a low 3.00s ERA guy.
Norris, ostensibly, is the handcuff for Gregerson. He performed well as the Angels' closer last season before a knee injury ruined the second half of his season. His fourseam fastball has always been his biggest weakness. Norris turned to the pitch just a quarter of the time last season, instead leaning on a plus cutter, slider, and sinker. Further reliance on his three successful pitches could trigger another breakout. He's also expected to serve as a swingman if the club needs a spot start or three.
Lyons jumped on the slider train. He used the pitch more than his fastball and sinker combined. As far as sliders go, it's a great pitch. Since both of his fastballs are decidedly below average, it's hard to get too excited about the overall profile. I know some people are tagging Lyons as a potential breakout target due to the 2.83 ERA, 11.33 K/9, and 3.33 BB/9 he posted last season. Personally, I'm anticipating regression.
I prefer Leone's four pitch repertoire to Lyons, although I figure Leone still fits best as a middle reliever. As one of the better relievers in this bullpen, he should rack up holds with his blend of fastball, cutter, sinker, and slider. Cecil, a southpaw, is also a nice target for holds. He always finds a way to disappoint fantasy owners with his ERA and WHIP.
St. Louis has a slew of pitchers who could ride to the rescue if needed. Top prospect Alex Reyes headlines the list, although he may only pass through the bullpen as part of his rehab from Tommy John surgery. John Brebbia, Matt Bowman, Sam Tuivailala, and Ryan Sherriff were all solid last season. Old friend Jason Motte is in camp as a non-roster invitee.