PT TOMORROW: AL Central—An early look at bullpen targets

Cleveland Indians

Brad Hand (LHP, CLE; pictured) sits at the top of the AL Central closer list based on his projected 2020 value, so it may be even more important for the Indians to have the right mix to get to him, particularly with the recent news that starter Mike Clevinger (RHP, CLE) will be sidelined for several weeks with a meniscus tear. 

Emmanuel Clase (RHP, CLE) currently slots next in the hierarchy behind Hand. His stellar 2019 MLB debut (21 K in 23 IP with a 60% groundball rate) was a natural progression from his 50 K/ 9 BB in 45 minor league innings earlier in the year. Those minor league innings were spread between Single-A and Double-A, and while that debut was encouraging, he’s still in small-sample land, and could hit a few speed bumps as opponents get more looks at him. 

Nick Wittgren (RHP, CLE) was outstanding in the first half of 2019 (10.4 Dom, 7.0 Cmd), but his 2.30 ERA in the second half was unsupported as more fly balls, more hr/f, and more walks indicated a 4.83 xERA. He was pitching in high leverage situations (1.08 LI) throughout, but he may have a short leash if those second half problems resurface. 

A name to save for the end game/ reserve list/ dynasty drafts is James Karinchak (RHP, CLE), noted in this August 2019 column as “putting up video game numbers” in the minors with a devastating fastball/curveball combination. That combined 2019 line at Double-A and Triple-A: 66 K/ 15 BB in 27.1 IP, but 13 of those walks came in his 17 innings at AAA-Columbus. He did make his MLB debut in mid-September, but with only 102 minor league innings to date (about half of Clase's total), he may not make the Opening Day 2020 roster. Regardless, he could be a winning lottery ticket if/when he demonstrates control of the free passes. 


Chicago White Sox

Alex Colome (RHP, CHW) may have the shakiest grasp on the closer role in the division. A recent Facts and Flukes column noted large components of luck (including a 23% hit rate) were delivering decent results (2.80 ERA) but the underlying skills (FpK drop, faltering Ctl) cast significant doubt on sustainability. Are any of his bullpen mates ready to step in if/when he falters?

Kelvin Herrera (RHP, CHW) would seem to be the first choice, based on his prior closing experience with the Royals (50 saves from 2016-18). However, both his ERA and xERA spiked as his walk rate doubled (from 2.0 to 4.0 Ctl), and his strand rate collapsed (64% S%).

The White Sox bolstered their bullpen by adding Steve Cishek (RHP, CHW) and Tayron Guerrero (RHP, CHW) in the off-season, and both should be candidates for late-inning usage. The age-34 Cishek has been a high leverage fixture since 2011, but Ctl, Dom and hr/9 all went in the wrong direction in 2019, and the Ballpark Tendencies for the cross-town move to the South Side are not favorable. Guerrero and his 99 mph fastball are currently ticketed for the minors, where he will attempt to move beyond 2019’s blister problems and demonstrate some improvement in his 5.7 Ctl while holding on to that 9.4 Dom. 

The best overall package here might belong to Aaron Bummer (LHP, CHW), but those looking for high strikeout rates should look elsewhere. His 72% groundball rate in 2019 kept his decimals low and his Holds count high, but below-average Dom and Cmd limit his fantasy appeal.  


Detroit Tigers

Joe Jimenez (RHP, DET) enters spring training with a firm grip on the closer role, after being “closer of the future” for the past few years in Motown. Fly balls and home runs are still a problem for him, even in a relatively HR-moderate Comerica Park, but the elite 12.4 Dom in 2019 helped mitigate the damage. 

Setup man Buck Farmer (RHP, DET) had his best season in 2019 at age 28, and will hope to continue that progression in 2020. There were a few nits to pick at in the second half (fly balls up, swinging strikes down), but the rest of the skills package improved in almost every aspect. Holding those 2019 overall gains would make him a credible replacement for Jimenez if the situation arises. 

The most intriguing pitcher on the Tigers roster this season could be Rony Garcia (RHP, DET). Garcia was the first pick in the December 2019 Rule 5 draft, and as noted by our own Nick Richards, Garcia’s fastball/ slider combination could be an effective weapon in a number of roles. Garcia has thrown over 100 innings in each of his last two minor league seasons, so he fits well in a long relief/ swingman role as one of the 13 pitchers on a 26-man 2020 MLB roster for a rebuilding club.


Kansas City Royals
After 289 major league starts from 2007-18, Ian Kennedy (RHP, KC) moved to the bullpen at the start of 2019 and was firmly entrenched as the closer as the calendar turned to June. As a closer, he never pitched more than a single inning (a managerial concession to a then 34-year old warrior), so throwing at maximum velocity (94.5 mph in 2019, compared to a career average of 91 mph) in the bottom of the strike zone (best G/L/F profile of his career) yielded bonus returns for those who took that chance in 2019 drafts. 

Unfortunately for Kennedy and the Royals, the bridge from the starters was weak in 2019. The team only collected 61 holds in 2019 (13th in the AL), and 23 of those came from pitchers no longer with the Royals, leaving Scott Barlow (RHP, KC) and Tim Hill (LHP, KC) are the most experienced returnees in the Royals pen. 

Barlow’s 2019 second half surface stats (2.12 ERA, 1.32 WHIP) were a significant improvement over the first half when he had terrible luck (40% H%, 62% S%), but the one constant across both halves was difficulty finding the strike zone (4.7 Ctl), making it difficult to trust him in high-leverage situations. Hill filled the lefty matchup role and generated decent results, but 25 of his 46 appearances in 2019 were less than one inning, which may be difficult to repeat with the 2020 rules changes regarding LOOGY (Lefthanded One-Out GuY) pitcher usage


Minnesota Twins

The Twins have the one of the best bullpens in the AL, with several closer-worthy candidates led by Taylor Rogers (LHP, MIN). Rogers ranks second behind Hand on the projected 2020 value list, but much of that gap can be attributed to Rogers’ lower IP projection, perhaps based on his left-handedness and the available right-handed alternatives. Note, however, that Rogers’ .611 oOPS in 2019 against 206 RH batter plate appearances was not only better than his oOPS against lefties (.667 in 72 PA), but it was also the third consecutive season that he has improved his oOPS versus RH batters since his 2016 MLB debut.

The Twins re-signed the experienced Sergio Romo (RHP, MIN), who has posted triple-digit BPVs every season since his 2008 MLB debut. Except for five appearances as an opener in 2018, all of that time has been spent in relief, but now at age 37, a tough first half of 2019 showed enough warning (5.53 xERA, 1.9 Cmd) that the Twins should have additional right-handed options at their disposal. 

Both Trevor May (RHP, MIN) and Tyler Duffey (RHP, MIN) are poised to enter those high-leverage situations in 2020. May pitched his first full season in 2019 following 2017 Tommy John surgery, and a mid-season pitch mix change (slider replacing curveball as the #2 pitch behind his 95 mph fastball) delivered significant improvement. The only blemish in the second half? A jump in FB% and hr/9, as those higher velocity pitches left the ballpark much more frequently. Duffey showed elite skills (67% FpK, 16% SwK) while improving Cmd and reducing hr/9, giving Twins opponents quite the late-inning gauntlet to overcome. 

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.