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Bolstered Bullpens: A’s, Jays, Tigers Stronger in Relief

Kim Klement - USA TODAY Sports

The Athletics, Blue Jays and Tigers enter 2016 with deeper and more talented bullpens.

After watching the Kansas City Royals dominate the Majors Leagues over the past two seasons with a lights-out bullpen, it’s becoming a standard for winning teams to have three or four late-inning stoppers.

Instead of going all in on their lineups or starting rotations, more teams are switching gears and making it a priority to beef up their bullpens. The Yankees, Red Sox and Astros all made trades for high-profile closers this offseason, while the defending champion Royals once again made some moves to add to their biggest strength.

Aside from the clubs that already have stacked bullpens and the ones that went after the big names this offseason, here are three bullpens that underwhelmed in 2015 that could see huge improvements in relief throughout the 2016 season.

Kelley L. Cox - USA TODAY Sports

Oakland Athletics

The A’s had the worst all-around bullpen in the Majors in 2015, but that won’t be the case this season. With their new and improved relief corps, Oakland could potentially lower its 4.63 ‘pen ERA by more than a full run in 2016.

For starters, they’ll have closer Sean Doolittle back, who was limited to just 12 games this past season with a shoulder injury. Losing their bearded southpaw was a low blow for the A’s, who as a team recorded just 28 saves in 53 chances. For those scoring at home, that’s a league-low 53 percent in save opportunities. Doolittle will return to the closer’s role this season looking to build off of his breakout 2014 campaign, when he posted a 2.73 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and an insane 89:8 K:BB ratio. Doolittle’s return alone will be huge for an A’s team desperate for some consistency at the back end of their ‘pen.

Marilin Indahl - USA TODAY Sports

But having a top-10 closer is useless if you can’t take a lead into the ninth, which is why Oakland’s new depth gives them a handful of reliable late-inning options. In addition to their ninth inning troubles last season, the A’s weren’t much better in the earlier innings. Oakland’s bullpen collected a league-low 42 holds and allowed 34 percent of its inherited runners to score, which tied for the highest percentage in the Majors. 

The A’s needed a reliable set-up man to bridge the game to Doolittle, and Ryan Madson is that guy. Fresh off a three-year absence, Madson had a career year with the Royals in 2015 and was a huge part of their championship run, turning in a 2.13 ERA and 20 holds in 68 appearances. Madson proved to be a legitimate set-up man during his best years with the Phillies, and he should have no problem being just as trustworthy in Oakland.

If the A’s starters can get through the seventh inning with a lead on a regular basis, Madson and Doolittle will shut the door down. But if they can’t, and with an underwhelming staff they probably won’t, Axford and Hendricks will provide sixth and seventh inning help, reducing the stress on the starters to work deep into games.

Axford finished last season with a 4.20 ERA, but keep in mind that he was pitching in Colorado most of the time. He had an impressive 2.70 ERA in 26.2 IP on the road, and he becomes a candidate to close if Doolittle suffers another injury. Axford picked up 25 saves last season and had a career-high 46 with the Brewers in 2011. Hendricks, on the other hand, completely dominated in 2015, going 5-0 with a 2.92 ERA in 64.2 IP, and will be an above-average middle-inning workhorse.

Sure, you might not be able to name half of the A’s starting lineup or anyone in the starting rotation after Sonny Gray, but GM Billy Bean has quietly put together a strong, recognizable bullpen in Oakland.

Reinhold Matay - USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Blue Jays

The Jays’ bullpen wasn’t a disaster last year, but there was still plenty of room for improvement entering the new season. It’s not often that a team demotes their closer after he posts a 2.58 ERA in 68 games, but that’s exactly what the Blue Jays will do with Roberto Osuna after trading for Drew Storen

The Jays’ bullpen wasn’t put into a ton of sticky situations last season thanks to their heavy-hitting lineup providing some serious run support. Toronto’s ’pen finished with the second-lowest Average Leverage Index (ALi) in the Majors, which measures the average pressure a team’s pitchers saw during the season. The Blue Jays’ .904 ALi shows that they faced very few high-pressure situations, but that’s likely to change this season with the AL East looking much stronger top to bottom. Having two guys capable of closing and holding down the high-pressure innings will help them greatly.

John E. Sokolowski - USA TODAY Sports

Storen brings a live arm and big-game experience to a Toronto team looking for stability. Through six ML seasons, Storen owns a 3.02 ERA and has proven himself as both a set-up man and closer. He recorded 29 saves with the Nationals last season before the Nats handed the job to Jonathan Papelbon, and he picked up a career-high 43 saves in 2011. As an eighth inning guy, he collected 44 holds combined between 2013 and 2014.

As for Osuna, he enters his second big league season after bursting onto the scene as a 20-year-old rookie in 2015. He saved 20 games and looked poised beyond his years pitching for a playoff team, and while Storen will get a bulk of the save chances, Osuna isn’t any less qualified to pitch the ninth. The Jays only had 62 holds last season, so bumping Osuna to the eighth inning will lower Toronto’s chances of blowing late-inning leads as he immediately becomes a premier set-up man.

Aside from the one-two punch of Storen and Osuna, the Jays will trot out lefty Brett Cecil, who posted a 2.48 ERA and held opponents to a .197 BAA in 2015. Cecil will be trusted to neutralize lefties, but he’s more than capable of going full innings as his splits are just as good against righties. 

Plus, any combination of Aaron Sanchez, Jesse Chavez and Drew Hutchinson can provide additional ‘pen depth, with probably two of them likely to lose out on rotation spots. And don’t forget about switch-pitcher Pat Venditte, because who doesn’t love a switch-pitcher?

As the Blue Jays aim for back-to-back AL East crowns, their improved bullpen should help them secure a few more wins.

Jeff Curry - USA TODAY Sports

Detroit Tigers

Well, after failing to address their late-inning woes over the past five seasons, it looks like the Tigers finally figured out that it wouldn’t hurt to have a dominant bullpen. A lack of an elite bullpen was the Tigers’ biggest weakness during their four-year reign atop the AL Central, and it really came back to bite them in the 2013 when they should have won the World series.

But better late than never, right? New general manager Al Avila seems to think so. Entering his first full season as Detroit’s GM, Avila wasted no time adding Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson to the equation. After posting the worst BAA (.271) and fourth-worst ERA (4.38) among ML bullpens last season, the Tigers are in a position to turn that around in 2016.

Rodriguez is entering his age-34 season, so there’s reason to expect a decline at some point, but as you can see, he doesn’t appear to be slowing down just yet.

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K-Rod has appeared in 129 games and has recorded an average of 41 saves over his last two seasons, while saving 82 games in 89 chances. The Tigers bullpen blew 25 saves last year, so it doesn’t get much better than adding a closer who has blown just seven over the past two seasons. 

Rodriguez also posted a WHIP under 1.00 in each of those seasons and he’s still striking out more than a better per inning, which is huge for a Detroit bullpen that finished second-to-last with 395 punch outs in 2015. K-Rod has a lot left in the tank, and with the Tigers expecting to compete for the AL central crown, he should get ample save opportunities.

Gregory Fisher - USA TODAY Sports

Mark Lowe, who had a big year for the Mariners and Blue Jays last season, will take over eighth inning duties in Detroit. After tallying 17 holds in 55.0 IP in 2015, Lowe will be a valuable addition to a Tigers ‘pen that picked up only 50 holds last season, the second fewest in the Majors. Lowe was trusted in key situations in 2015 and finished the season with a 1.96 ERA and 1.05 WHIP, which is a strong indication that he’ll be able to duplicate that success in 2016.

With Lowe entrenched as the set-up man, lefty Justin Wilson will be the main seventh inning option for the Tigers. In three full ML seasons, Wilson has logged at least 60.0 IP in each of them and has made 70+ appearances the past two seasons. He racked up 29 holds for the Yankees last season and posted a respectable 3.10 ERA. Wilson does a great job against lefties but he’s not just a lefty specialist, as he held righties to a lower BAA last reason, making him and intriguing eighth inning option in the right situation.

After a brutal 2015 season, the Tigers are once again loaded up for a playoff run, and their new-look bullpen will play an important role in their quest for a fifth AL Central title in six years.


*Stats taken from ESPN.com and BaseballReference.com

Edited by Ben Moore.

SQuiz
Which team led the Majors in Bullpen ERA in 2015?
Created 3/9/16
  1. Pirates
  2. Royals
  3. Cardinals
  4. Indians

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