Starting pitching is – and always has been – a huge factor in determining moneylines for individual contests. But as the game continues to evolve, relief pitching and the depth of bullpens is just as big of an influence on baseball futures odds.
Fewer starting pitchers are expected to work more than five innings now, and the advent of the ‘opener’ with a ‘bulk reliever’ has also changed the strategy for many teams. In 2019, the last full 162-game season, relievers logged 18,265.2 innings, or better than 42% of the more than 43,420 frames thrown, and we have every reason to believe that workload will increase in 2021.
Depth & Experience Put Dodgers on Top of NL Bullpens
Projecting the top bullpens in the National League is almost as easy as checking out who the top betting sites like to win the pennant. Like I said, almost as easy, and there’s always room for debate. In this case, however, it is pretty simple with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres ranking 1-2 to win the NL, and also owning the top relief corps in the Senior Circuit.
My top bullpen pick is Los Angeles. Kenley Jansen has slid down the past couple of years, coinciding with a drop in his velocity. He’s still the go-to guy for manager Dave Roberts, who has plenty of options behind Jansen should his longtime 9th-inning arm falter. Blake Treinen and Corey Knebel both have experience closing games, with Treinen the favorite to take over if Jansen is forced to take another role. Knebel’s return from Tommy John surgery last season left something to be desired, but if there’s any team that can get the righthander back to his old ways, it’s the Dodgers. Los Angeles also has a bevy of arms that can step into high-leverage roles like Brusdar Graterol, Victor Gonzalez, Joe Kelly and Dylan Floro.
San Diego isn’t far behind LA, and it would be no surprise to see the Padres eventually emerge as having the top NL bullpen. The team made noise this offseason by strengthening the rotation with the addition of Yu Darvish and Blake Snell, and manager Jayce Tingler has a deep group of relievers that very well could end up being a committee of closers. Drew Pomeranz is penciled in as the closer, but it could be Emilio Pagan or Mark Melancon in that role on any given day. Austin Adams should see plenty of high-leverage action, and the group also includes Keone Kela and Javy Guerra.
Relief Could Decide NL East for Mets or Braves
If the MLB odds are to be believed, the NL East race is a two-team battle between the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets. That doesn’t mean the three other teams have garbage out in their bullpens, especially after the Washington Nationals inked Brad Hand in the offseason. In the end, neither the Mets nor the Braves might have the best relief corps in the division, but they definitely possess the most crucial bullpens as far as the NL East goes.
Atlanta doesn’t really have a big-name, established closer, but it’s a deep group for manager Brian Snitker to use at his disposal. Will Smith is showing up at the top of the pecking order on most depth charts, but we can expect Chris Martin, AJ Minter and Tyler Matzek at times in the ninth inning. The guy who could change all of that is Luke Jackson if the 29-year-old can finally find a consistent groove.
New York does have a recognizable name for the ninth in Edwin Diaz, who is very capable of winning NL Fireman of the Year honors to go with the same trophy he picked up in the AL three seasons ago for the Seattle Mariners. Trevor May was signed to serve as the primary setup arm in front of Diaz, and Seth Lugo should see plenty of high-leverage duty once he returns in May. After that, however, there are a lot of question marks in the Mets’ bullpen.
Do Brewers Have Best Relief Duo in the Majors?
If we were able to merely go down the list of odds to win the National League this season, the St. Louis Cardinals would be directly behind the previous four teams in terms of bullpen strength. And it is an impressive group…that is if Jordan Hicks can step right back into being a flame-throwing closer after being away for almost two full seasons.
The good news for Hicks is he’s had ample time to recover from Tommy John surgery that ended his 2019 campaign early. Hicks opted out of 2020, and all news from spring camp is he’s back to throwing 100 mph heaters. The good news for St. Louis is a nice group to support Hicks out in the bullpen. Giovanny Gallegos and Andrew Miller are part of that mix, and depending how the battle for the No. 5 starter goes, it could be deepened by the addition of either John Gant or Daniel Ponce de Leon. The wildcard is Alex Reyes, assuming he can stay healthy.
Milwaukee potentially has the best two relievers in the NL Central, and possibly all of baseball. Josh Hader has 380 strikeouts in under 225 MLB innings, and has been among the top relievers in the game – if not the very top – for a few seasons. Hader was shown up last season by teammate Devin Williams, who whiffed 53 in 27 frames. If that duo can repeat, the Brewers could easily be a nice dark horse MLB pick to steal the NL Central from St. Louis.