There’s nothing better than a tight division race, and if there’s one area in which the majority of the American League Central clubs are most similar, it’s their bullpens.
In 2020, Cleveland (fifth), Minnesota (sixth), Chicago (seventh) and Kansas City (eighth) all finished in the top two-thirds in the AL in bullpen ERA. The White Sox made a big splash over the offseason to improve their relief corps, adding right-hander Liam Hendriks. Meanwhile, Alex Colomé went from the White Sox to the Twins, and the Indians are hoping that James Karinchak will be ready to take over for former closer Brad Hand.
These bullpens could rank very closely again in 2021. Let’s take a look at what we know — and what remains to be seen — in each team’s bullpen.
The known: We know we’ll see James Karinchak, Emmanuel Clase and Nick Wittgren in the bullpen. Phil Maton seems like the next-closest lock, and Adam Plutko (who’s currently working as a starter in camp) will likely ended up in the ‘pen as well. After the Tribe decided against picking up Hand’s option for the 2021 season, it’s been assumed that Karinchak will take over his role. However, if he runs into any command issues early in the season, the Indians have a tremendous backup option in Wittgren, who is one of the more experienced players on the roster and has been everything the Indians could’ve asked for over the past two years.
The unknown: From there, the question marks emerge. The Indians are likely to carry eight arms in their ‘pen, particularly at the beginning of the season. The club tends to break camp with at least one non-roster invitee each season, and veteran relievers — and familiar faces — Oliver Pérez and Bryan Shaw seem to be the most likely to earn such a spot. But the team will need to see more of guys like non-roster invitee Blake Parker and prospects like Kyle Nelson and Trevor Stephan to get a better idea of their chances to break camp with the team. Once Cam Hill recovers from the injuries he sustained during a car accident last November, he’ll likely get thrown back into the mix as well.
— Mandy Bell
The known: The Royals return the core of their bullpen for 2021, after bring back closer Greg Holland on a one-year deal and returning high-leverage relievers Josh Staumont, Jesse Hahn and Scott Barlow, who figures to be another workhorse coming off his Major League-leading 32 appearances last year. The Royals added Wade Davis on a Minor League deal, but he appears to be on track for a roster spot come Opening Day after showing added velocity to his fastball and good control that will make him valuable in 2021. Kyle Zimmer hopes to continue to stay healthy and contribute like he did in ’20, while Tyler Zuber also proved to be reliable out of the ‘pen last year. The Royals have depth in Scott Blewett, Richard Lovelady and Jake Newberry, as well as some of the starting pitching prospects on the rise who could make their debuts out of the bullpen.
The unknown: What’s more of an unknown is how the Royals will use their relievers. Manager Mike Matheny pushed his bullpen, which was a strength, last year in the shortened season. However, he has acknowledged that it will be tough to do that to that extent again in a 162-game campaign. Another unknown will be Jakob Junis’ role. It will be likely based on team need, because Junis can start and relieve. His newfound cutter has added a legit weapon to his arsenal and might be better used in a starting role, but if he continues his spring performance into the regular season, there’s also a path for him to be a high-leverage reliever.
— Anne Rogers
The known: The Tigers’ bullpen is largely set personnel-wise, which is somewhat surprising for such a young group. Buck Farmer, Gregory Soto, Bryan Garcia, José Cisnero and Joe Jiménez are pretty well set, with three of them likely forming the late-inning combination in some order. Soto, inn whatever role he ends up grabbing, is the dominant arm, a left-hander with a sinker that approaches triple digits and a four-seamer that’s just as imposing. If he improves upon his command, he’ll be a force.
The unknown: Manager AJ Hinch hasn’t identified a closer, nor has he said for sure if he’ll even have a set closer. He has preached versatility and length out of his relievers with the ability to get more than three outs. Garcia, who led the nation in saves at the University of Miami in 2016, held the job down the stretch last year with decent success, but he relied more on contact for outs. Soto has prototypical closer stuff, but he has battled command issues. Jiménez, Detroit’s previous closer, has settled down after a rough 2020 season, but he is still trying to get his old velocity back. After that, the Tigers will have three bullpen spots open, two of which will likely be determined by the rotation battle and whether Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander return to their old bullpen roles. Hinch’s decision on a possible six-man rotation is also likely to play a role, with at least one possible swingman.
— Jason Beck
The known: The brunt of the Twins’ high-leverage innings are expected to go to Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, Alex Colomé and Hansel Robles, and though there’s more closing experience in the fold, there’s no question that this is a group with much less veteran depth than last season’s relief corps. The departures of proven contributors like Sergio Romo, Trevor May and Tyler Clippard mean that the Twins will likely need Jorge Alcala and Cody Stashak to step into more prominent roles. The club could also have Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe available to help as long relievers — a role that manager Rocco Baldelli has rotated over the last few years.
The unknown: We know who will pitch the late innings for the Twins, but there’s still no clear road map as to how they will be used. Rogers has earned the majority of the club’s ninth-inning opportunities over the last two seasons, but Colomé also gave the White Sox 42 saves in that time, and Robles was the Angels’ closer until losing the job last season. The Twins, as always, have said that those pitchers’ usage will depend on matchups, but it might take until the regular season to see what that will look like in practice. The club will also need both Rogers and Robles to bounce back from difficult 2020 seasons in order for that plan to work. The Twins have built up a good amount of veteran depth among non-roster relievers. Could any of them break out in the way that Ryne Harper did in ’19 or Matt Wisler in ’20?
— Do-Hyoung Park
The known: The White Sox might have the best bullpen in the AL, and that unofficial nod could extend across Major League Baseball. Their relief crew already was deep before they added Hendriks — the top closer in baseball a year ago — via free agency. They also will have a full season of Garrett Crochet after his five impressive appearances during his 2020 Draft season. Michael Kopech, a fellow hard thrower, will begin the season in a relief role. Aaron Bummer is fully healthy after missing time last year due to a left biceps strain, and he might be one of the more quietly dominant relief pitchers around.
The unknown: There really isn’t much unknown about this group. Manager Tony La Russa spoke of using Kopech in multiple innings, while Crochet would be more of a setup man in the last third games. Carlos Rodón seems to have the edge to be the fifth starter, meaning Reynaldo López will probably open the season out of the bullpen. The biggest question might be what the team will do with Jimmy Cordero and José Ruiz, who would be key contributors on many teams but might not have a spot at the season’s outset if the White Sox break camp with eight relievers, as expected.
— Scott Merkin