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2020 Early Bullpen Outlooks - N.L. East


Update 2/14/2020: Brandon Kintzler confirmed as closer in Miami.

It's Super Bowl Week, and that means a lot in football, sure. But what about baseball? It means anticipation. It means the free agent pool is drying up, and players are starting to make plans for Spring Training. We don't know much about the 2020 season yet, but there has been enough movement to at least start developing an idea of how things might go.

It's the first year of the new rule that will force relief pitchers to face at least three batters, leaving the LOOGY as a thing of the past. It'll give much more value, both on the field and in fantasy, to those pitchers who can "get more than one guy out."

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The National League East made some moves this offseason, and if you believe some projections, this has a chance to be the best division in baseball. (Harold Reynolds, for example, has the Marlins finishing in last place...with 80 wins.) Let's take a look at the bullpens in the N.L. East.

 

Atlanta Braves

The Atlanta Braves added one of the best available relievers this offseason, signing lefty Will Smith to a three-year deal worth at least $39 million. Smith was great for the San Francisco Giants last season, putting up 34 saves in 38 chances with a 2.76 ERA and a matching 2.73 xFIP. He struck out 37.4% of the batters he faced while walking just 8.2%, both very good rates. Despite all that, reports say Smith will begin the season as the setup man for Mark Melancon. Melancon took over the closer's role in Atlanta last season after almost everyone else in the bullpen failed when given the chance. He ended up a perfect 12-for-12 in save opportunities, posting a 3.61 ERA/3.06 xFIP. His 23.9 K% wasn't much to get excited about, but his strong control led to a low 6.3% BB%. Melancon should  be able to hang onto his closer's role, but he's not the high-upside fantasy piece that Smith could be.

Elsewhere in the Braves bullpen will be former closers Shane Greene and Luke Jackson. Both had success at times in 2019 but with plenty of struggles mixed in. Greene essentially had two vastly different seasons in 2019: he went 22-for-25 in saves with a 1.18 ERA and 28.5 K% as a member of the Detroit Tigers, then just 1-for-3 in saves with a 4.01 ERA and 20.8 K% as a member of the Braves. There were plenty of signs showing that Greene's success with the Tigers wasn't sustainable (3.81 xFIP compared to that 1.18 ERA) but he's still a better pitcher than he was in a Braves uniform in 2019. He should settle in as a solid late-inning option and could develop some holds league appeal. Luke Jackson blew seven saves but put up solid strikeout numbers and could also be an option in deeper holds leagues. Chris Martin, Darren O'Day, and possibly A.J. Minter make up the rest of the back end of the Braves bullpen, a unit that should be a strength for the team in 2020.

 

Miami Marlins

The Miami Marlins have led the National League in losses for two straight seasons. They'll be better this season, though. That's what the team is telling us, and that's what projections say. Some are quite a bit lofty (80 wins? maybe if we count Spring Training), but it would be an enormous disappointment if the Marlins didn't improve on 2019's 57-105 record. Much of the expected improvement for Miami comes from prospects panning out and young players improving, but they made some smart bullpen signings this offseason as well. Ryne Stanek figures to enter the season as the team's closer despite struggling in that role late last season after coming over from the Tampa Bay Rays. Stanek thrived as the opener in Tampa Bay, but pitched exclusively in relief for the Marlins, often in high-leverage situations. He threw 21 1/3 innings in a Marlins uniform, saving just one game while blowing four and posting a 5.48 ERA/5.31 xFIP. That came with a decent 28.3 K% and a disgusting 19.2 BB%. There's little reason to think Stanek will suddenly become a valuable closer, but he should certainly improve on a what's been a disastrous Marlins career so far.

Newly acquired Brandon Kintzler was confirmed as closer by Marlins manager Don Mattingly on the first full day of Spring Training. Kintzler signed a one-year deal as a free agent and brings solid numbers and a veteran presence to the bullpen. Last season, he picked up 17 holds for the Chicago Cubs, posting a 2.68 ERA/4.06 xFIP. He's never been a huge strikeout guy, but his 21.2 K% matches well with his 5.7 BB%. He's a solid big league pitcher that should bring plenty of value to the Marlins in real life, but he won't be much of a fantasy option unless he locks down the ninth inning early and should  be consistent enough to put up solid mixed league value despite the low strikeout total. The Fish also added Yimi Garcia, who pitched well for the Los Angeles Dodgers last season. He put up a 3.61 ERA but a concerning 4.90 xFIP. He's a guy that "throws strikes" though, which is something the Marlins specifically said they wanted. Garcia's 2019 featured a 26.7 K% compared to a 5.7 BB%. Similar to Kintzler, he should be solid on the mound in Miami, but won't be much of an option in fantasy lineups. Elsewhere in the Miami bullpen will be Jarlin Garcia, Drew Steckenrider, and Adam Conley. None of those three have much relevance in fantasy leagues, but Steckenrider and Conley do still have some untapped upside and maybe "this is the year."

 

New York Mets

The New York Mets thought they had their bullpen issues solved before last season started, acquiring elite closer Edwin Diaz from the Seattle Mariners. Instead, Diaz had a disastrous season and the Mets disappointed in the standings once again. There were some encouraging signs from Diaz, however, and a lot of his struggles could have been bad luck. He ended up with 26 saves in 33 chances and a 5.59 ERA, but a 3.07 xFIP. He maintained an elite 39.0 K%, and his 8.7 BB% was tolerable as well. Diaz is a prime bounce back candidate and can likely be had later in a lot of drafts than his upside implies. He's someone I am targeting in most leagues this season, as I think he's one of the safer bets to outperform his ADP.

He will have some competition though, as the Mets signed former elite Yankee reliever Dellin Betances to a one-year deal with two player options attached. Betances threw just 2/3 of an inning for the Yankees last season, spending the vast majority of the season on the injured list with arm troubles. He expects to be ready for Spring Training however, and has thrown plenty of elite innings in the past. In 2018, Betances posted a 2.70 ERA/1.95 xFIP to go with an otherworldly 42.3 K% and 9.6 BB%. If Betances can recover from his injury and Diaz can recover from his awful season, the Mets could have one of the best 1-2 punches at the end of their bullpen in 2020. Spin-rate king Seth Lugo (2.70 ERA/3.24 xFIP, 33.1 K%) should maintain a late-inning role along with Justin Wilson and Jeurys Famila. Lugo should be a solid holds league contributor, with the other two likely needing injuries ahead of them to develop consistent fantasy relevance.

 

Philadelphia Phillies

The Philadelphia Phillies had 36 saves as a team in a disappointing 2019 season. Hector Neris got 28 of those in 34 chances, and he'll return as the team's closer in 2020. Neris went a bit under-the-radar in 2019, but he was more than solid and seems set for another similar season in 2020. Last year, he put up a 2.93 ERA/3.53 xFIP with a 32.4 K% and 8.7 BB%. He is not an elite closer like some of the other NL East guys have the potential to be, but he's consistent and doesn't have the name recognition that will bump him up draft boards. Neris is one of those closers that you can draft late but get mid-round results out of most of the time.

Seranthony Dominguez spent a ton of time on the injured list in 2019, pitching just 24 2/3 innings. In those innings, he ended up with a 4.01 ERA/3.98 xFIP and 26.4 K%. He was better in his rookie season of 2018, when he was healthier and pitched 58 innings of 2.95 ERA/3.04 xFIP ball. He should be a solid setup man for Neris and could have some nice value in holds leagues as long as he stays healthy in 2020. Jose Alvarez and Adam Morgan should be pitching important innings for the Phillies this season as well, but both are far better "real life" pitchers than they are fantasy assets.

 

Washington Nationals

The Washington Nationals won the World Series last season despite having one of the worst bullpens in baseball history. They acquired Daniel Hudson at the trade deadline, and he made a huge difference. So huge that they decided to re-sign him to a two-year, $11 million contract. For 2019 as a whole, which he split between Washington and Toronto, Hudson pitched 73 innings, posting a strong 2.47 ERA but a concerning and ominous 5.08 xFIP. As a member of the Nationals, he went with a 1.44 ERA/4.68 xFIP. There's reason for concern with Hudson, but there's also reason to believe he's just one of those pitchers who outperforms his predictors. Despite getting the last out of the World Series (and famously "yeeting" his glove away afterwards), Hudson will enter the season as the primary setup man, not the closer.

The closer for the World Series Champions will be lefty Sean Doolittle. Doolittle dealt with some injuries that made him ineffective at times in 2019, but he ended up with a good season overall. He saved 29 games in 35 chances, putting up a 4.05 ERA/5.08 xFIP. All of his numbers took a dip after an excellent 2018 (1.60 ERA/2.68 xFIP), but as long as he can stay healthy, he should end up with stats closer to his 2018 season than to his 2019. He's a somewhat risky, but nice upside option in most fantasy formats. Will Harris, Hunter Strickland, and Tanner Rainey will all pitch meaningful innings this season while the Nationals defend their title. Harris should have some value in holds formats, and Rainey could as well. Strickland is too risky to bet on in all but the deepest formats.

 

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