Top 10 MLB Bullpens to Watch for in 2014

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Spring Training 2014 Top 10 MLB Bullpens

Boston Red Sox
Mark L. Baer- USA TODAY Sports

On a steamy July night, the Atlanta Braves are up 3-2 in the top of the eighth inning against the LA Dodgers in the heat of a pennant chase. After giving up two runs to start the inning, the bullpen is called in to come retire the side. No, this isn’t something out of a movie; this is this big leagues, and this is what relievers live for.

To be an effective relief pitcher you have to have nerves of steel. Not every outing will be smooth and relievers are often put in at the most important times in the game. With being a reliever comes the added task of literally putting the team on your back, getting the starting pitcher out of a jam and securing the final outs of the game.

While some bullpens have been known to be solid for years, others have been known to falter in almost routine fashion. For instance, last season the Houston Astros blew 29 games, accounting for over 25 percent of the total team losses for the season. Conversely, the Braves Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals all ranked in the top three for lowest ERA which translated to over 50 save seasons for each team. There are plenty of factors that go into the production of a bullpen: whether it is how many innings the bullpen had been used that week, the situations relievers are brought into or even how deep the bullpen’s depth is. Here is a list of the top 10 bullpens to keep an eye on as we are now less than two weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training.

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10. Pittsburgh Pirates

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Last season, Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon led the Pirates' bullpen to one of the franchise’s best seasons and the club’s first winning season since 1992. The 36-year-old Grilli may have finally found his groove as the closer over the past two seasons as he struck out 127 batters in 91 innings of work. After going to Pittsburgh in a trade as part of the deal that sent Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox, Melancon was another piece of the puzzle in the bullpen’s success. He pitched 71 innings, struck out 70 and posted a 1.39 ERA while giving up just one home run. If the Pirates are going to make another playoff appearance in 2014, the bullpen will have to keep up its pace from last season, especially with the uncertainty of whether AJ Burnett will be back or not.

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9. St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis
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Despite being NL Champions and making it to the World Series, the Cardinals lacked a bullpen with any sort of punch. Overall, the pen held a 3.45 ERA and .247 BAA which ranked them in the middle third of the league. What did stick out is the fact that relievers only gave up 36 home runs, the 4th fewest in MLB. Part of the regression from 2012 may have had to deal with the absence of Jason Motte after he missed the entire season after having Tommy John surgery. It would have been extremely difficult for the Cardinals to make up for the 42 saves Motte had in 2012, but somehow they found a way. In just his second year, Trevor Rosenthal stepped up and pitched 75 innings with a 2.63 ERA. In addition to a decent ERA, he posted a 1.06 WHIP during the regular season and a .54 WHIP in the postseason in 20 innings of scoreless work. With Motte coming back for the 2014 season, it will be tough to say who will be the full-time starter for the team, although that isn’t necessarily a bad problem to have.

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8. Oakland Athletics

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2013 was a reasonable year for the A’s bullpen with a large part of that due to consistency of Grant Balfour. Balfour had 38 saves and a WHIP of 1.19 en route to his first All-Star Game selection of his career. Overall, the bullpen had a 3.22 ERA and only gave up 154 walks, second-fewest overall. With the departure of Balfour after the season some might expect the bullpen to regress, but I don’t anticipate that happening.

This offseason, the A’s traded for Jim Johnson of the Baltimore Orioles, the 2012 Rolaids Reliever of the year. Although his 2.94 ERA was a bit high in 2013, he pitched just 70 innings so he certainly wasn’t worked too much in Baltimore. In addition to Johnson, the A’s traded for Fernando Abad of the Washington Nationals to add a little more depth for a team that has plenty of young arms in its arsenal.

The key for success will be how these young arms can develop and produce on the field. If the young guns can keep the workload low for Johnson, the A’s can expect results similar to the last season at the very least.

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7. Cincinnati Reds

Cincinnati Reds
Frank Victores- USA TODAY Sports

After being the one of the best bullpens in 2012, the Cincinnati Reds bullpen started out slow in 2013. With strong starting pitching and offensive production to match, the bullpen made it hard to watch some games as they had a higher ERA than what most fans would have liked to see. The good news was that they turned it around after the first two months of the season and ended up with a league leading .216 BAA and a respectable 3.29 ERA.

What stood out even more was that the pen only gave blew 16 saves all season, the fourth fewest in the league. Much of this was thanks to Aroldis Chapman, the Reds' explosive closer. Last season Chapman had an insane 16 k/9 ratio while he blew past almost every batter he faced with his 100+ mph fastball. If he isn’t the best closer in baseball, he is certainly the second-best. What bodes well for the team is that all of their relievers are back this year which helps the chemistry and continuity of the team. As one of the top bullpens for the past two seasons, it would not be a stretch to say they will finish up the 2014 season in the top five.

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6. San Francisco Giants

SF Giants
Ed Szczepanski- USA TODAY Sports

Out of all teams in the league, the San Francisco Giants have a bullpen with one of the highest ceilings to reach. In 2013, the Giants had five relievers finish the season with sub .300 ERAs. The bullpen also had the fifth-highest save percentage, finishing with 40 saves in 54 attempts. While these numbers were good, the bullpen suffered with control and gave up 189 walks in 501 innings pitched.

The bullpen mainly stood on the shoulders of Sergio Romo, as he posted a 2.54 ERA and 4.83 SO/BB rate. Romo had 38 saves last season and made it to his first ever All Star Game. Romo is certainly a player to watch in the NL this season and a key factor in how high the Giants will climb in 2014. While watching Romo, you may want to check out Heath Hembree as well. Hembree is one of the top relief prospects in majors, and although he pitched just 7.2 innings last season, he struck out 12 and walked just two batters.

As for right now it seems that Romo’s job as the closer isn’t in jeopardy, but you can bet that if the bullpen should falter Bruce Bochy will have no problem going to his younger guys to gain on the job experience as they battle the Dodgers in the NL West.

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5. Los Angeles Dodgers

LA Dodgers
Jayne Kamin-Oncea- USA TODAY Sports

If there is anything that can be said for sure, let me start by saying 2014 will a year of the battling closers in LA. Last season, the Dodgers had a 3.49 ERA and .240 BAA, neither stats that jump off the stat sheet at you. However, one promising stat that does jump off the stat sheet is the 617 total bases given up by Dodger relief pitchers, the third-fewest in all of baseball.

With all the money that has been spent in recent years by the Dodgers management team, it is easy to overlook the smaller details within the organization, such as the three solid options they have to come in for relief from the 7th-9th innings. In December, the Dodgers signed Brian Wilson to a one-year deal, bringing back one of the most dynamic and interesting players in the game. If he isn't appearing in commercials or on the red carpet, he is on the mound making batters look like fools. Even though he pitched just 13 innings in 2013, he held a .66 ERA and a .87 WHIP.

Wilson has said he would be fine as a setup guy for the Dodgers and let Brandon League be the closer, something a lot of Dodgers fans may have a problem with. In League's two season with the Dodgers, he has held a 4.30 ERA and a WHIP of 1.40, both terrible marks for a closer. If that wasn't bad enough, he signed a $22 million contract last winter, putting more pressure on him to perform.

One final piece of the Dodgers' closer saga will be Kenley Jansen who is quickly becoming one of the best closers in baseball. Last season, Jansen threw 76 innings with a 1.88 ERA and .86 WHIP, two stats that really show who should be the closer for the team. Regardless of what happens between these three players, it will be an interesting situation to watch as the season progresses. The Dodgers have the pieces to be a dominating bullpen; the trick will be getting each of them to find their own roles on the team.

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4. Texas Rangers

Texas Rangers
Kyle Terada- USA TODAY Sports

Last season the Texas Rangers had one of the most dominating bullpens in the majors, especially down the stretch. The Rangers bullpen posted a 2.91 ERA and only blew 11 saves, the fewest in the league. If that wasn't good enough to convince you of their success, they only gave up 35 home runs and a 1.22 WHIP.

The success of the bullpen was largely due to the call up of Neal Cotts a 6-foot-1 lefty that pitched in 57 innings for the Rangers. In his 57 innings of work, Cotts had a 1.11 ERA and a .95 WHIP, ranking just behind the Red Sox Koji Uehara who had a 1.09 ERA. Another unknown that helped the success of the Rangers success was Jason Frasor. He held opponents to a .161 average and 1.62 ERA. A final piece of the puzzle last season was closer Joe Nathan. At 38-years-old, Nathan converted 43 out of 46 save opportunities with a sub 1.00 WHIP and 1.90 ERA.

2014 will be a season of change for the Rangers. Nathan is now with the Detroit Tigers and the Rangers will have to depend on young arms. The team signed free agent Joakim Soria this off season to help fill in for Nathan's absence. Soria should help the team with some depth and he should return back to his sub 2.50 ERA seasons like he had as a Royal from 2007-2008.

The key factor in the Rangers' success this season will be Neftali Feliz. The 2010 Rookie of the Year missed most of the season while recovering from UCL surgery. After a failed attempt at being a pitcher in the starting rotation, Feliz has found his home in the bullpen where he will see less work. It is good that Feliz is still only 25 years old, he returned in September and pitched 4.2 scoreless innings. If the Rangers' bullpen is going to be successful it will have to be with Feliz on top of his game and healthy.

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3. Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay
Kim Klement- USA TODAY Sports

Similar to the Giants, the Tampa Bay Rays will be an interesting team to watch in 2014 mainly because of the additions they have made. Last season, the Rays had a 3.59 ERA and held opponents to just .221 at the plate, good enough for the third-lowest in the majors. While only blowing 18 saves, the club needed to make some moves in the offseason, especially with the uncertainty of Fernando Rodney's contract.

Last season Rodney had 48 saves and a killer .60 ERA, easily one of his best years. To complement Rodney (if he returns) the Rays went out and got Heath Bell, formerly with the San Diego Padres. Hopefully the change of scenery will be good for Bell, after all, he is a three time All-Star. The Rays also went out and signed Grant Balfour in free agency. Last season Balfour had a 1.18 WHIP and 38 saves for the A's.

With the additions of Bell and Balfour, the Rays appear ready for success regardless of what happens with Rodney. While they have a solid nucleus of relief pitchers, the Rays also have some of the best arms out of any farm system at their disposal. I fully expect the bullpen to be one of the strongest assets for the Rays this season and help them take on the Red Sox and Yankees in the AL East.

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2. Kansas City Royals

Kansas City
John Rieger- USA TODAY Sports

It seems like every year baseball analysts and insiders say this is the time for the Royals to finally break out. I'll admit it; I fell for this trick many times, including this year. Living in the shadow of the Tigers in the AL Central, the Royals actually had a good 2013 campaign, finishing up with a 86-76 record. Their modest success was owed much in part to their starting rotation and bullpen pitching. The bullpen held opponents to a .217 batting average, good enough for second-lowest in the MLB. The bullpen's success was also owed in part to the crazy 9.57 k/9 ratio, which led the majors.

Greg Holland was the key for the bullpen's success in 2013. He gave the club stability on those hot and humid KC afternoons as he maintained a 1.21 ERA and recorded 47 saves. Luke Hochevar was also an integral part to the team's success. If you remember correctly, Hochevar was originally a starting pitcher. After a few seasons of being awful he finally found peace in the bullpen last season in limited action. Hochevar thrived in the pen, owning a .82 WHIP.

If the Royals are going to keep up with their success, the club will need Hochevar and Holland to be the pillars they were last year. With the stability of those two, it should give confidence and guidance to some of he younger guys. At this time next year, look for a conversation on how to maintain new found success rather than praying for success as many Royals fans have done over the past several decades.

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1. Atlanta Braves

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Just as the Braves had been known for constantly being one of the best teams in the NL, they are now being known as one of the teams with the best bullpens in the majors. In 2013, the Braves had a 2.46 ERA and .222 BAA with a 1.14 WHIP, second-lowest in the league. What helped make these statistics possible was the fact that the Braves bullpen pitched the fewest in the NL. This helped to keep arms fresh and allowed for the best closer in baseball, Craig Kimbrel, to dominate.

Kimbrel was the first closer since 1982 to lead the NL in saves for three consecutive seasons. Kimbrel dominated opponents, owning a 1.21 ERA and has 381 strikeouts in 227 innings of action. Helping to keep the pressure off Kimbrel, Luis Avilan stepped up and was a machine for the Braves. In 65 innings of work, Avilan had a 1.69 ERA and .98 WHIP; not too shabby for a guy who has only appeared in 106 career games.

While the Braves have been arguably the best bullpen in the majors for the past two years, statistics say they are due for regression. I disagree. Sure there will be some bumps in the road and injuries will happen, but they have depth. The Braves also boast one of the best farm systems in the NL and have young arms ready and willing to be called up. If there is one thing we have learned over the past several decades it's that the Braves' bullpen is here to stay. Somehow the Braves will find a way to remain at the top of the MLB's 10 best bullpens of 2014.