There's a lot of great pitching in the National League central, and some of it's even in the bullpens. Ok, actually all of these bullpens are at least okay. And for what it's worth, I like the Cubs' chances... in 2015 or 2016.
Hey, it worked for the Astros, why won't it work for the Cubs? Jose Veras put up a career-best walk rate last year and that was the secret to his success, if anything. That improvement in walk rate was backed by an improvement in first-strike rate -- his first year at league average or better in that stat. That's nice to see, but both walk rate and first strike rate are 'sticky' year-to-year at the same level. So it's only slightly more likely that he retains some of those gains in walk rate. He could still lose the zone. Fernando Rodney improved his first-strike rate that one shining year, and then it fell apart along with his walk rate the next year. You still have to draft Jose Veras as if he'll walk a guy almost once every two innings -- and lose his job due to trade two-thirds of the way through the season.
And so, once that happens, we'll be left looking at two young players with upside. Arodys Vizcaino is The Golden Arm, even if Pedro Strop throws 96 with a great slider and an average split-finger. Vizcaino has a power curve that is seriously almost Kimbrel-like. It's tight and sizzling and has better whiff rates than any of Strop's pitches. The problem with him, of course, is health. After two years off -- Tommy John surgery and complications upon return -- the Cubs would probably just be happy to get him through the season healthy, saves or no. In terms of statistical profiles, Strop is a lot like Veras. Good stuff, terrible control. If he gets the job, value him about the same as Veras: a bottom-tier closer, but a closer nonetheless.
Closer: Aroldis Chapman
Setup Man: Manny Parra
Man of Intrigue: J.J. Hoover
If Aroldis Chapman threw his slider more, it would make the minimum pitch thresholds and be a top-five slider by whiff rate. But he doesn't have to throw his slider much because his fastball averages 98 mph and ten inches of vertical drop. There's a whiff of injury risk about Chapman -- he always seems to have a cranky week or two, and didn't love working back-to-back-to-back -- but that's probably true of every pitcher. About as elite as it gets, you're just going to have to pay top dollar on Chapman. He's probably worth it, considering he's projected to give you *five* strikeouts per nine innings over the average closer. That's as much as 30 strikeouts your staff would have in hand over a staff of average closers. Check to see what 30 strikeouts would have meant to your team last year!
Behind him, it's been Sean Marshall for a long time, but there are a couple reasons to leave him off the list this year. For one, he's coming off of shoulder problems and is taking camp slowly. He might miss time this year. And another, when I asked Dusty Baker if Sean Marshall would close last year, he said "If Sean Marshall could close, he would have closed by now." Obviously Dusty is gone, but it does give you a window into how the team values the reliever. Dunno if you've looked at Manny Parra since he moved exclusively to the bullpen, but the lefty is fairly lights out in that role. His fastball jumped from 92 to 93 plus, his slider is plus in short stints, and his split-finger gets a whopping 30% whiffs when he gets ahead enough to use it. He's a lefty, though, so J.J. Hoover may factor in eventually. He doesn't have a good breaker -- his slider and curve get half the whiffs you'd expect of an average slider and curve -- but his 93 mph fastball has ten inches of drop and gets whiff rates that look Chapmanian. Look his way if Chapman goes down for a while.
Jim Henderson is the John Axford story redux. And it's also a story of reflux. This 31-year-old Canadian reliever with control problems and tons of gas carries with it the same risk as the last one. If he loses control of the fastball and becomes more predictable, or leaves the slider over the plate against a lefty, he's in a park where mistakes turn into home runs. If those home runs are solo, he'll be fine. If he reverts to the Jim Henderson that spent six years in the minor leagues in three organizations due to poor command, there might actually be another closer in Milwaukee this year.
You have to figure Francisco Rodriguez is the band-aid. He was supposed to be first in line at one point when John Axford went down, when there was hope that John Axford would come back after a week off. Jim Henderson had to fight his way into the role, to some extent. So if Jim Henderson only falters slightly, K-Rod might get some chances. But if it looks like something has gone Kaput in Henderson's control, look to Brandon Kintzler. He throws 93 with a good change, slider and sinker, so he has weapons against batters of both handedness. His strikeout rates haven't been great -- perhaps because he's traded strikeouts for a good ground-ball rate -- but he checks most of the other boxes. If Milwaukee is going to go against the grain, it's Will Smith and his left hand that might get the first shot. The Fresh (new) Prince pretty much scrapped the change last year and became a sinker/slider/curve guy, which should mean some platoon splits. Last year, though, he was able to make that plus slider work against righties. Zoom out on his career, though, and his strikeout rate *halves* against righties. Probably not closer material if that platoon problem resurfaces.
Closer: Jason Grilli
Setup Man: Mark Melancon
Man of Intrigue: Bryan Morris
Jason Grilli was a revelation over the past two years. In 2012, at 36 years old, he put on an extra 1.5 mph of (grilled) cheese on his fastball and vaulted to the top of the closer rankings. That's not normal. Normal is losing fastball gas every year you're in the big leagues until you're gone, really. More worrisome is that Grilli's injury last year was thought to be worthy of Tommy John surgery, and strained forearms are often thought to be harbingers of the same surgery later on down the line. He's a major injury risk this year, and he's averaged fewer than 50 innings over the last four years anyway.
The Pirates don't care because they've proven their backup closer is just as good as their first-chair closer. Mark Melancon was always supposed to be a closer coming up in the minors, and in the majors he usually had average strikeout rates to go with good control and great ground-ball rates, so his peripherals agreed with the assessment. Boston's loss was Pittsburgh's gain. Melancon won't get you average strikeout rates for a closer, but he's not quite Jim Johnson esque, averaging almost a strikeout per inning. Given his rates, ratios and the closer in front of him, he's probably worth drafting even in mixed leagues, as a final pitcher. He'll help your non-save stats and give you a toe in a bullpen that might see change. Bryan Morris has a 94 mph fastball, a good slider and a good curve, so he's better than his strikeout rate last year. That said, a competitive team like the Pirates will probably just use him in middle reliever for another year or two before he sniffs saves.
St. Louis Cardinals
Closer: Trevor Rosenthal
Setup Man: Jason Motte
Man of Intrigue: Carlos Martinez
How nice it must be to be a Cards fan. Not only does their rotation drip with talent, their farm system produce arms like they were rabbits on the heath, and their outfield boast a top-three prospect, but their bullpen features the leftovers and is dominant. Trevor Rosenthal is finally resigned to closing, and though he has the arsenal to be a starter, it's our gain that he's 'stuck' there. By whiff rates, his change-up is plus, his slider is average, and his curve best used for grounders. His fastball, though, gets *twice* the whiffs of an average fastball, probably because he can hum it up there at 97+ with great drop. The 23-year-old has youth and great control, too, so he checks every single box. Except perhaps health, that's an unknown. His groin hurts right now, for example.
The last great find in that bullpen, Jason Motte, might not be ready for opening day. That leaves Carlos Martinez to step in. Martinez is still being considered for a starting role, but as nasty as his stuff looks, there's an under-reported facet of his arsenal that might be relevant to his future: he's a sinker/slider guy, those two pitches have the biggest platoon splits in the game, and he's got wicked platoon splits himself. That's why his strikeout rate drops in half against lefties, and that's why he may be the setup man this year. Stuff still looks great, but if you're wondering why he didn't strike more guys out last year, that's why. He's a ground-ball and hope guy against lefties.