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2020 Early Bullpen Outlooks - N.L. Central

Update 2/14/2020: Keone Kela confirmed as Pirates closer.

We've covered all of the American League and the NL East, and next week we'll wrap things up with the National League West. This week, it's the National League Central's turn though. There are plenty of players with fantasy importance in the Central, and that rings true in the bullpens as well.

The National League Central looks primed for another interesting season, as all of the following descriptions can be said about teams in the division: a bad team got better; a good team got worse; a bad team got worse; a good team got better. There's a lot to look at in the Central and for some teams a lot to look forward to. It'll almost certainly be a long, tough season for a couple of teams in the division, but hey it's baseball, you never know!

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Let's jump into the bullpens in the National League Central and see where there might be some fantasy value in 2020.


Chicago Cubs

The Chicago Cubs have Craig Kimbrel as their closer. That would have been great news for Cubs fans as recently as 2018. But now? It's a legitimate cause for concern. The Cubs invested three years and $43 million on Kimbrel, only to see him put up a 6.53 ERA in 20 2/3 innings in 2019. There were some positive signs though, as his xFIP was a much lower 4.75 and he still struck out 31.3% of the batters he faced and saved 13 games. But Kimbrel was not Kimbrel, and he'll need to be Kimbrel again in order to keep his role and maintain fantasy value. Given his contract and his last name, he'll almost certainly be given a long leash in the role, but fantasy owners won't have that luxury.

Backing up Kimbrel will be Rowan Wick. Wick was very good last season in 33 1/3 innings, posting a 2.43 ERA and 25.0% K rate, but there were some concerns. His 4.38 xFIP was close to Kimbrel's, and his 11.4% BB% was much higher than you'd like for a reliever who doesn't rack up Ks. Still, Wick performed well enough to earn the main setup role and will be Kimbrel's ninth inning handcuff, at least to start the season. Brandon Morrow joined the Cubs on a minor league deal and could be a huge factor if he can stay healthy. Morrow has been excellent whenever he's been on the mound, he's just barely been on the mound. He's thrown a combined 156 2/3 innings since 2014. If he shows enough to make the team, he should quickly work his way into a setup role. Kyle Ryan, Jason Adam, (the two-first-names-duo) and Ryan Tepera should all pitch significant innings in 2020, but it'll take an injury or two ahead of them to give them significant fantasy value.


Cincinnati Reds

Every season seems to have a surprise playoff team, or at least a team in contention until way later in the season than expected. My bet is on that team being the Cincinnati Reds this season. They've improved in many aspects this season and return most of what was a pretty solid bullpen. Raisel Iglesias will return to the ninth inning after saving 34 games in 2019. He put up a 4.16 ERA/3.72 xFIP with 31.9% K% and 7.5 BB%. He showed flashes of being an elite closer, but also some flashes of getting everything wrong. It all averaged out to a pretty solid season, although the Reds would prefer to see a bit more consistency in the ninth inning.

Iglesias will be set up by Amir Garrett, Michael Lorenzen, and Robert Stephenson. Garrett had some control issues in 2019 (14.2 BB%) but showed enough swing-and-miss stuff (31.7 K%) to be worth considering in all holds formats. He ended up with a 3.21 ERA/3.80 xFIP and 22 holds. Lorenzen was used in many different ways (including as a center fielder!) and performed well in all of them. On the mound, he threw 83 1/3 innings, putting together a 2.92 ERA/3.97 xFIP with 24.8% K% and 8.2% BB%. Lorenzen is an extremely fun player to watch, but his fantasy value is actually somewhat limited by his versatility. Stephenson looked like he was finally putting it together in 2019 and has the upside to have a strong 2020 season, but he hasn't shown much of anything in his big league career outside of 2019, so he's a definite risk-reward kind of guy.


Milwaukee Brewers

The Milwaukee Brewers made the playoffs as a Wild Card team last season and were just two games behind the Cardinals for the division. They should be good again this year despite a rather quiet offseason and a concerning starting rotation. The bullpen was solid last season and should be again, led by closer Josh Hader. Hader has been one of the hottest fantasy commodities and there's no reason to think he won't be again in 2020. In 2019, he saved 37 games and put up a 2.62 ERA/2.36 xFIP. His elite 47.8% K% and 6.9% BB% both made fantasy owners foam at the mouth, and most predictors show he's in for another similar season. He did blow seven saves in 2019, but the ridiculous numbers everywhere else made up for it.

David Phelps was one of the Milwaukee free agent bullpen signings, and he should immediately slot into the late innings. Phelps missed all of 2018 and struggled somewhat in 2019, but he was great out of the bullpen before then. He should work in a set up role along with Alex Claudio. Claudio is a solid enough pitcher on the mound, but he has very little fantasy value as seen by his 16.5% K% and 4.59 xFIP. While the upside of Hader alone makes the Brewers bullpen fantasy significant, there isn't much else to see beyond him.


Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates, folks. 2020 is going to be ROUGH. The Pirates entire payroll is essentially one Mike Trout season right now, and they're the early favorites for the worst record in the National League. That doesn't mean the team is devoid of fantasy talent, though. Keone Kela will likely open the season in the closer's role. Kela missed a lot of time in 2019, pitching just 29 2/3 innings, but he was solid in those innings. He posted a 2.12 ERA and 27.7% K%. His 4.28 xFIP is slightly concerning, but more concerning is how few games he'll likely be asked to save. Kela is certainly an option in deeper leagues if he keeps the ninth inning for himself, but he should be one of the last full-time closers drafted just because of his team's situation.

Elsewhere in the Pirates bullpen we find Kyle Crick. Crick has exciting stuff and showed some flashes in 2019, but ended up with a 4.96 ERA/5.33 xFIP along with 27.0% K% and 15.5% BB%. If Crick can find the type of command he showed in previous seasons while keeping his strikeouts up, he would be a solid holds league option with the same bad team caveat of Kela, but he's not someone who needs to be drafted in most formats. Richard Rodriguez and Michael Feliz make up the rest of the Pirates bullpen, but both have little upside when it comes to fantasy. Nick Burdi is certainly someone to keep an eye on, but his role and health are yet to be determined.


St. Louis Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals bullpen is set to look quite different on Opening Day 2020. Carlos Martinez, who did well in the ninth inning for the most part in 2019, has said he expects to be in the starting rotation in 2020. Jordan Hicks is recovering from Tommy John Surgery and won't be back until the All-Star Break at the earliest. So that leaves a ninth inning hole for manager Mike Shildt. The logical candidate would be Giovanny Gallegos, who worked as the main setup man for most of 2019. Gallegos tossed 74 innings with a 2.31 ERA/3.59 xFIP. He showed excellent control, posting a K rate of 33.3% and a BB rate of just 5.7%. He would do well as a closer and could be a sneaky-good pick in the later middle rounds if he's named to the role.

Another possibility is former top prospect Alex Reyes. Reyes has spent a ton of time on the injured list (even back when it was the disabled list.) He threw three innings in 2019 and four in 2018. He missed all of 2017. He was electric in his rookie season of 2016 though, posting a 1.57 ERA in 46 innings, including five starts. He's still just 25, and while he's said his goal is to be a starter, the Cardinals have said they hope he can develop into a high-leverage bullpen arm. He has the upside to be elite, but is an absolute question mark at this point. Andrew Miller should return to a setup role but could close if other options fail. John Gant and John Brebbia will be solid late-inning guys both worthy of looks in deeper holds formats.

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